For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking.   –The Editors

While riding to work with my dad in his beat-up 1992 Chevy Suburban, my brother, a struggling filmmaker, floated the idea of making a movie about Dad’s life. The film would be about how my father’s troubles mirror those of the nation.

Dad, a quiet, unassuming but solidly principled man, wasn’t keen on being the subject of a movie. He doesn’t like the limelight, no matter how small. He did offer one bit of editorial advice though: “Whatever else is in the movie, it’s gotta be hopeful.”

Many don’t see the situation this way. After a disastrous eight years under the Bush administration, where ever-widening income disparity, cronyism, a reckless Wall Street and a disastrous war sent the nation into a tailspin, the future often seems like it’s going to get a lot darker before it gets any brighter.

For many people, including Dad, it’s already turned darker. Late last year, he lost his relatively comfortable job at a small controls company where he was a production manager making $80,000 a year. The global slowdown meant nobody was buying machine controls. Needing work, he took a job with an upstart construction company where he became a “manager.”

But the company is just starting up, so that means he and my brother spent the winter months hauling fetid trash out of abandoned public housing on St. Louis’s rough North Side. The houses often sit in horrendous states of disrepair. The heater in one unit was broken for months; spraying hot water left the entire basement, floor to ceiling, green with mold.

My dad and brother are among the only workers who don’t bring guns to work. Several times dad has been chased into houses by locals. Often, neighborhood dwellers sit by his truck, a form of intimidation. When he goes into a house–many of which have been gutted by vagrants searching for scrap metals–my barrel-chested and imposing brother stands guard out front with a crowbar.

It’s a far cry from the suburban office building where dad spent fifteen years working up from a shipping clerk to the production manager. That office was five minutes from home, and my mom didn’t have to worry when he left work.

Although Dad is strong and doesn’t show much wear, I can see the situation weighing on him. One night in March, he sat up in the middle of the night, screaming, cursing, kicking the wall. When my mom finally woke him up from his nightmare, his fists were clenched and his sinewy muscles were tense. He said someone was trying to hurt my brother in his dream. He’d never done anything like that before.

The Great Recession seems to have made everyone question their station in life. Things that once seemed certain–America’s dominance, ever-rising house prices, General Motors, Lehman Brothers–have vanished before our eyes, giving way to a new, more sobering reality.

The change must be especially stark for dad. My parents haven’t lost their house–they’ve always been extremely prudent with money–but I can’t help but think about how it must feel to go out with their friends on the weekends–mostly parents from the private school I went to, the one we had to sacrifice a lot to send me to when things were good–and then get up on Monday to head back to the inner city. It must be weird for my dad to spend the days clearing out the debris of broken-down lives, the filth and dust and hopelessness of long-forgotten public housing, and then spend his weekend hanging out with doctors, lawyers and businesspeople whose lives, although hampered, are probably similarly comfortable to the ones they lived before the crash.

And then there’s the pressure of a drastically lower income.

But my dad, true to his advice, is working to build hope, to make the best out of the situation he’s in. He’s learned the names of all the people on the block. He knows their mothers. He’s hired recently released convicts, and because no one else will work with them, he does. Occasionally, he drives neighborhood kids to school.

More than that, Dad is working to make this crisis into an opportunity to do something good. Using the connections he’s made in the community–and the connections he and my brother have in the well-to-do community–he’s trying to start an urban farming project in the city to provide jobs, as well as local, sustainable food to residents and high-end restaurants alike.

Dad would probably laughingly dismiss such a grandiose characterization, but I see my father as the embodiment of the American spirit. He shows there’s dignity in working and sacrificing for the future, no matter how bleak it seems–and even he would acknowledge that that’s a source for hope.