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2017 Creative Minds Essay Contest

Thank you to all who entered this year's contest, and congratulations to our winners:


First Place

point blank

by Joungbihn Park

before I confessed that he had a gun, my mother held my wrist tightly and yelled at me and I felt heartbroken and inconsolable because we had lost my dad’s salary that was in her bag, because I had no idea how much that bag cost and how much we had lost, and I simply repeated sorry, sorry, and when I saw her suffer, her lips puckered in worry, I started sobbing, wheezing, as if my larynx were clogged, my breathing punctuated as I stood there unable to fully swallow what the span of a minute had caused to me, to my mother, to my sister, to our family, as we stood perplexed in the middle of a seedy parking lot in Santo Domingo surrounded by cars whose hoods shone under the sun and dimly visible onlookers who watched us from their apartment windows behind their curtains, breathless silence fogging their glass panes, not completely guiltless, but whose silence I could not blame

before I confessed that he had a gun, Señor Hernandez, whose back bent, hair white, marched out of his apartment and staggered towards us with his cane while I hid behind my mother’s back, clawing onto the pleats of her skirt, refusing to look straight into the old man’s eyes while he explained to my mother what happened, how he himself was too frightened to come out and confront the robber, saying how the ‘poor little girls’ got scared stiff, saying he had watched everything behind the yellow curtains, and told my mother how she shouldn’t blame me for having lost that bag, having let the robber run away, because I was just too young to defend myself, and that reduced me to tears until I was wailing at the top of my voice, not only because I was shocked by what had just happened but because it was upsetting and unfair that my mother was scolding me, calling me stupid, not the robber, but me, so I just wept brooding over the words she let out, the blame that she had put on me and between punctuated sobs, I uttered, he had a gun, umma, and my mother collapsed on the ground, her face turning the pallor of the flesh of a Dominican chayote

before a man pointed the gun at my sister, my mother left our Santa Fé unlocked, gently grabbing my sister’s friend’s hand and walking toward one of those grey, low-rise buildings, as the little girl joyfully shook her pigtails, as my sister and I were peacefully seated, then I threw a short glance at my four-year- old sister just to check, to be relieved at the sight of her calmly settled in her cushioned car seat before I looked to the front, lost in thought, mind wandering off, gazing at some colorful laundry that hung in one veranda, at a black graffiti written in Spanish on one wall, at a man smoking as the thin coil of smoke disappeared hazily in the air, at some plants that added a little green to these dull structures, at everything that added some life and youth to the long-standing blocks of dark cement

before he held the trigger at my sister, I was startled by the click with which the car door flew open, I sharply turned my head, and he, dressed in black and his expression hidden behind a crash helmet, ominously dark, snatched my mother’s bag with a violent jerk, causing me to freeze for a second, motionless, pale, frightened, then by instinct reach out for the purse, the very second he pulled out his gun, placed his finger on the trigger and pointed at my sister, calmly seated, too calmly seated, who, too young, remained oblivious to the extent of the force this hand-sized object posed to her, and I felt my heart snap like a twig under some weight at the incredible image before my eyes of two figures, the robber and my sister, gun aimed at my sister’s head, my sister stiff as a rock, the robber’s finger quivering by the trigger, a scene that would linger for the rest of my life, though it lasted a matter of seconds, but felt like my own head had split and the very bullet of his gun had pierced my brain

Joungbihn Park is a 16-year-old junior from Korea who currently studies in Manila, Philippines. She has also lived in Korea, the United States, Switzerland, and the Dominican Republic. She is working on a collection of nonfiction stories about her experiences and hopes through her writing to raise awareness of issues such as the war on drugs and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Joungbihn loves sleeping, traveling, photography, sunsets, and hot chocolate on rainy days.

Judge’s comments: “Point Blank” is something of a tour de force—structured in reverse chronology, written in unpunctuated, incantatory prose, each refrain adding more disturbing information, each moment leading back earlier and earlier to an image of raw horror. It’s dense with detail, each frozen and vivid, preserved as if in amber by trauma.


Second Place (tie)

Dandelion Patch
by Lizzie Markovich

Run! she screams. Run away from the monster, run away from Melina! We scream and run and hide under the slide, where the seeker cannot find us. We look at each other and start to giggle, and it gives us away. Her brown face peeks around the plastic climbing wall at us and a curtain of long brown hair follows. We squeal and run but not before she can tag me. I got you Lizzie I got you! Melina yells in a voice like the air when a car passes you. I trudged back as slow as I could and I was sad for a moment, but then I was happy because who is sad when they play games? I count and count until the numbers are jumbled in my head and then I open my eyes. I look everywhere for Ava and Melina but I can’t find them. Where are you Ava and Melina? I yell. Then I see a bright pink sneaker, flashing up into the slide like a lightning bolt in August. I see you, I scream. I run to the slide. Up up up I go, up into the slide but when I come to the top no one is there. Where are you Ava? Where are you Melina? I see her again, by the seesaw, but this time it is the curly curly hair like a poodle that I see. Help me Melina, the monster is trying to get me, she’s chasing me! Ava screams and then giggles as she runs away from me. I got you this time I say. I follow her, running, sprinting, and finally catching her in the field because I run faster than she can. I tag her and she falls into the dandelion patch where we used to play hand games, and she falls and falls with a scared look on her face, twisted like a Halloween mask, and hits the ground with a thud and a crunch. I knew that the game was over then and so did she. Her body lays in the dandelion patch, crushing the dandelions and their thin stems, and her arm is bent and twisted like the skinny trees in the winter. And then her eyes are like waterfalls, gushing with tears and tears and her mouth is full of red screams and sobs and the teacher hears her and tells me to run for the nurse but I can’t move. I can’t move I can’t move I can’t move and I stand there watching Ava cry and sob and scream for her mommy. I can’t move when she looks at me and screams. Me, the monster.

Lizzie Markovich is a freshman at the Kinkaid School in Houston, TX. This is the first time her writing has ever been published, and she plans to continue writing in hopes of publishing more works. Lizzie is an avid reader, and also enjoys baking, swimming for her club team and her school, and playing with her younger siblings. 

Judge’s comments: “Dandelion Patch”’s run-on polysyndeton reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s prose (or maybe it was the title that put me in mind of him). That breathless style, and the dazzle of sense impressions, is mimetic of the frenetic energy and fractured attention of a child, and puts the reader vividly inside the memory as if it were his own. The last line literally made me say “wow!” out loud.


by Shruthi Shivkumar

“Epi-”: upon/over

“Genetics”: referring to DNA, inherited biological coding

Epigenetics are like the pencil markings that float on top of the strands of our genetic material. These modifications are acquired through environment, behavior, or a cluster of other factors. They can be erased just as they are crudely as they are scratched on, but we can also pass on these faint tracings of symbolic graphite to the next generation to discover and translate.

I am growing up in a city of historical smog. This long-gone rust belt glory leaves a trail of air pollution and dusty particles from decades ago lingering in the mixture of nitrogen and oxygen I breathe in.
What if future generations can’t release themselves from the tight grasp this town is holding on my genes and dreams?

The generation I am growing up in is drowning in anxiety and depression and amplifying it through cruel memes, self-deprecation, and fake “I’m there for you” offerings. Environment has been shown to impact your epigenetics, as well as the people you surround yourself with, and maybe even the frequency of your texts.
I’m lonely and I brag about it in 140-character rants and wait for likes.
My children will not appreciate me for that.

Test scores. GPA. Extra-curricular activities. Grades. Classes. Rigor.
Words that strike panic and fear into our hearts. These trained conditional responses probably have at least some tangible effect on our histone deacetylation, I presume. Most likely a negative effect.
Maybe I feel the round-robin effects as my practiced, environmental psychology influences my expressed genes which in turn influence the jeans I wear and the way I speak, but maybe one day my grandchildren will be more affected by the days I spent crying and writhing in mental pain than the absolute values of numbers that promised to determine my future back in high school…
Excessive tears probably rust your DNA, too.

I’d like to say the politics of today are corrupting my mental methylation, because there must be a physical consequence for the maddening frustration these representatives are causing. Blue and red, they are infinitesimally tiny colors in comparison to the incomprehensible rainbow that is being shattered like glass inside our carefully wrapped nucleotides every time these Democratic or Republican or scandalous challengers and incumbents speak.

Maybe the Halloween candy I carelessly feasted on consisted of lipids that will choke the proteins that my DNA coils around. With luck, I’ll have warning signs emblazoned on my genetic material that read *Alert: this specimen went through countless cycles of starving, feasting, worrying and over-analyzing as a teenager.*
If the bad days reveal themselves through my histones, I hope the good ones do, too.

Perhaps this random graphite chicken-scratch will not deter my progeny from experiencing a fulfilling quality of life, but maybe, just maybe, the way I hold my pencil will ignite a chain reaction that reaches out and gently touches those who have my blood running through their veins in one hundred and twenty years. There’s no way for me to know if putting my pants on with my right leg first will ever affect my future extended family’s heart health, but if we knew all the nitty-gritty details then we’d probably become biological, environmental dictators...and where’s the molecular spontaneity in that?

Shruthi Shivkumar, 16, lives in McMurray, PA, and loves literature as much as she loves science. She has been a peer writing lab tutor in both middle school and high school, and when she isn't writing, Shruthi loves participating in speech and debate or organizing events for the school science club. Her work has been previously recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards at the regional level.

Judge’s comments: “Epigenetics” is an essay after my own heart, the kind I like to write myself. It uses science as a jumping-off point for a philosophical speculations about cause and effect, the consequences of the seemingly inconsequential, as well as a broadside critique of our culture of achievement, the toxicity of politics, the oxidation of the economy and the fouling of the environment. I admire its ambition, its intellectual rigor, its somber, reflective tone, and the glimpse it afforded me into the angst and grievances of a new generation.


About our judge

Tim Kreider’s first collection of essays was We Learn Nothing; his forthcoming one is called I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. His cartoon, “The Pain—When Will It End?” ran in the Baltimore City Paper for 12 years and is collected in three books by Fantagraphics. He took Writing Skills I–III at CTY’s Johns Hopkins campus from 1980–83, and was later a TA and instructor at several summer programs sites.