We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s fifth annual Student Writing Contest.
This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. 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 ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. — The Editors
Inevitably, those who will lose the most through budget cuts are students. They are the reason the educational system exists. We may not, however, forget the educators and staff who facilitate their learning in the first place. They are the ones whose careers, chosen largely with altruistic motives, suddenly enter a state of uncertainty, and frequently are terminated. This, in my mind, is the greatest loss to the student. I fondly remember one of my favorite teachers who bemusedly said to me in conversation that he had "taken a vow of poverty" in order to pursue what he loved doing.
No, it is not the loss of technology in the classroom, it is not the loss of extracurricular activities or even the loss of classroom supplies that will most affect the American student. It is the uprooting and loss of jobs and financial means to those who day in and day out work tirelessly to ensure student success, be it the principal or the janitor.
One of the budget crisis causalities includes Mrs. Judie Smith, who served as the receptionist and attendance clerk at the local elementary school for fifteen years. She was placed in a position where she had no alternative but to leave. An entire generation of students had grown up being greeted by Mrs. Smith at the start of each day. She did not accept mindless grunts when she offered her cheerful "Good morning!" A select few might have received quite a different greeting from Mrs. Smith: one that occurred after the 9 <span style="font-variant: small-caps">am</span> bell when they were "tardy." She was a true professional with a dry wit who was the perfect liaison between the school and the community. One would have the impression it was actually Mrs. Smith who ran the school. Despite her very formal exterior, Mrs. Smith was always ready to lend a kid lunch money, call home for forgotten homework or let you dip into her bowl of hard candy. When she was suddenly gone, a void was left, no matter how intangible it may be.
Another loss that greatly that affected me was that of Mr. Peter Nguyen, the computer technician at the same site. This kind and gentle man took it upon himself to remember the name of every student he came into contact with. Even though his role was considered non-educational, he would talk to kids and ask them how they were. He cared about their dogs and would tell them about his. He, too, was forced to leave his job.
The stalwart custodian, Mr. Armin, who over the years has kept the elementary school immaculate with his staff, now feels powerless to keep up with the demands placed upon him. His staff of four now consists of himself and one other night custodian. There are approximately 700 students at his site. Mr. Armin has to go to outside sources to get supplies to clean the lunch tables because there is so little funding. Many teachers now clean their own classrooms, knowing Mr. Armin and Mr. Al are working to keep up with impossible demands.
At my high school, 40 percent of the staff was cut and class size has skyrocketed. I took an advanced writing class, and the teacher could not possibly have been expected to read and correct each of the papers submitted by her nearly 100 students. But the feedback I would hope to get is essential as a writer, and there was very little of that. This I see as a failing of the system, not the teacher.
The transportation department in the district where I attend school may be eliminated. It’s not just a department but people who are being eliminated. Many of these longtime employees have shuttled students safely to and from school for years. They have seen countless hours behind the wheel getting students to games and field trips. And now, the entire department may be eliminated if parents don’t assume a nearly $200 increase in bus fees. This means parents will be paying close to $600 a year to get their child to school.
I can remember the name of each bus driver I have had over the years. They all had the safety of students foremost on their minds, but they never lost their sense of humor or commitment. Now what sort of job might they do? Where will they go to find work after years as a school bus driver?
Although I do not know these people with any real depth, I care for them as individuals and their departure has affected me profoundly. The cuts to the arts, sports and even transportation, though not pleasant, I believe we can handle. The loss of teachers, mentors and kind, dedicated friends… I do not think so.