A simple question posed by an Arlington County-based organization prompted tens of thousands of high school students nationwide to respond, providing a panoramic view into how today's youths view America's national identity.
"What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?" the Bill of Rights Institute asked for an essay contest.
What followed were 31,595 responses, more than double the amount the institute received last year and about seven times the number it received when the contest started in 2006. Institute officials said they think it is the largest high school essay contest in the country.
"A lot of people don't give students a lot of credit, but these students really are thinking about what it means to be an American," contest director Jason Wilson said. "The number of participants this year sort of speaks for itself: Students are interested in writing about this, and they are thinking about this."
The values students listed included education and equality, perseverance and progress.
The organization awards three top prizes in each of nine regions of the country, giving winners and their teachers a cash reward and a trip to the District at the end of this month. The trip includes a tour of the National Archives before it opens to the public, a reception on Capitol Hill with members of Congress and a gala with an Oscar-style presentation of the awards. The students know they are finalists but won't find out their rankings, and the size of their prizes, until then.
Two of the top winners from the south Atlantic region are from Maryland. One of them, Elena Kim Perry of Bethesda, said she decided to enter the contest after her mother saw it on the Internet.
"In one aspect, it was the opportunity for scholarship money, but among all the other essay contests out there, I thought it had a lot of relevance to my life and everyone's life around me," she said.
She said she considered writing about courage or hard work but in the end chose tolerance:
"As we now find ourselves in the midst of a global war on terror, the need for religious and ethnic tolerance is as vital as ever. Too often, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments are confused with anti-terrorism, and unless we, the American people, renew our commitment to tolerance, we risk falling down a slippery slope of hatred and division. In a nation of such diversity, peace and justice cannot exist -- nor can we promote these ideals abroad -- without the values of tolerance and respect."
Perry said the idea came to her during last year's election campaign when former secretary of state Colin S. Powell addressed the rumors that Barack Obama was Muslim by saying, "the really right answer is, 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer's no, that's not America."
Perry, 17, a student at Richard Montgomery High School, said that she attends a Christian church that shares its building with a Jewish congregation and that the two occasionally hold joint services. While researching her essay, she said, she learned that before the Bill of Rights was ratified, George Washington wrote a letter to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island saying the U.S. government would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
National youth essay writing competition 2009
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