in focus


written by Anne Lutz Zacharias

photo by John Altdorfer

This year, 85 eighth-graders from the U.S., Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands were selected as Promising Young Writers. Three of them were from Mt. Lebanon.


Elly Bleier, Emma Dougherty and Maddy Rice all won this year’s competition sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The prompt was Flash Back, Forge Ahead, and students were asked to write a piece where the past or the future played an important role.

Emma Dougherty, Maddy Rice and Elly Bleier were three of only 85 middle schoolers in the U.S. and Canada to be selected as Promising Young Writers by the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Promising Young Writers program sends a message that writing matters, says Nancy Junker, writing clinician at Mellon Middle School. The NCTE established it in 1985 to emphasize the importance of writing skills in the eighth grade. “They look for writing that is imaginative and has voice,” she adds.

For this contest, students could write in any genre (drama, poetry, short story, science fiction, memoir…). In Mt. Lebanon, they were given 75 minutes in class to start the project and then a week to polish and finalize it.

Approximately 75 eighth-graders completed the assignment after which the middle school English teachers reviewed and scored each paper. Only one student per 100 enrolled is permitted to enter, so Jefferson was able to select two final entrants and Mellon was allowed three.

The winning pieces were dramatically different. Bleier wrote a fictional narrative in which a mother justifies abusing her child because her father abused her. She brainstormed ideas and then narrowed her list down to two: an abusive mother and a Holocaust story.

Dougherty was doing a presentation on yellow fever for another class and decided to write a historical fiction piece about a girl who contracts yellow fever and flashes forward into heaven.

Rice wrote a poem entitled Always Hiding about three girls: a slave trying to escape, a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany and a modern-day middle school student. Rice says she never knew she was a good writer until her teachers encouraged her.

“We have a great history with the Promising Young Writers program,” says Junker, “I don’t recall a time when we didn’t have any winners. It shows that Mt. Lebanon values and devotes resources to its writing program.”

Having both a literature and a writing class in sixth and seventh grades, “sets our kids up for success and sets us apart,” adds Melissa Kelly, writing clinician at Jefferson Middle School. “We expose our kids to a lot of writing.”

The teachers’ support really helped the winners. Dougherty, who is currently writing a novel, sums up her thoughts: “I love to write, but I doubt myself. I didn’t expect to win.”

And what advice do this year’s Promising Young Writers have for those of us who want to write well?

“Start daydreaming. Write whatever comes to mind,” suggests Rice.

“When writing the first draft, keep writing,” advises Dougherty. “Don’t revise right away.”

“Read a lot,” says Bleier, “read as much as you possibly can.”

Below are some samples of the writers’ work:

A Loving Mother


Dear Thomas,


Today, Susan lied to me.  It was something silly and unnecessary too.  What compels a child to lie to her mother is beyond me.  All I know is that she deserved a sound beating, and that is what I gave her.  She did not cry.  Imagine an eight-year-old not crying after she has been hit!  Even I cried after my father would hit me.

What surprised me most, though, was that she asked a question instead.  “Mommy, why do you hurt me?”  Though her face grew redder by the moment, Susan said it without even a waver in her voice.  She is stronger than I would have thought.  I am writing to you now, Thomas, because I didn’t know how to answer her question.  I want to try and answer her at dinner, but I do not know what she would understand.

I hit my child because it is the only way that children can learn.  What child will stop repeating an offense after a “scolding?”  My Susan is not perfect, and the only way to rid her of imperfection is to beat it out.  What children do not understand is that we as parents want what is best for our offspring.  I know all the “good Christian people” say that hitting a child is bad, but it did wonders for me.  I had to learn that it was for the best at an early age, else I would not have been able to bear it.

My father had just beaten me for getting a D on my report card.  Blood settled in dark pools around my bedroom, but at that moment, I didn’t care.  I couldn’t even feel the pain. Yet, his words surrounded me.  They echoed around the room and in my mind, taking my breath, torturing me.  “How is it possible for a little smart-aleck like you to fail?  You little jerk!  How dare you disappoint me!”  All I could think about was not disappointing him that evening, or ever again.  He had hit me before, countless times, and I still could not understand why.

Curled into a fetal position on my bed, my body shook as my sobs escaped.  My tears raced from my eyes and into my hair.  I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and stood up.  The sickly ghost standing before me held no resemblance to myself, yet when I moved, it did.  I cried out, scared of what I had become.

My legs wanted to collapse on the bed once more, but I rushed over to the mirror.  My father needed not to be disappointed again; I would please him.  He would never see that awful side of me.  The hairbrush refused to part my tangles, so after struggling in vain to make it smooth, I immersed my curls in the freezing water from the faucet.  My hands wrenched my scalp as I pulled my hair into a smooth bun.  Only a bloody towel remained in the otherwise spotless bathroom.  I yanked my cleanest socks to my knees, praying that my dangling toe didn’t look too deformed.  As I straightened, my hand hit against a purpling bruise on my thigh, reminding me of the D.  Never again would I fail in school.  Taking one last glance in the mirror, only my eyes looked defeated.  Only their resigned gaze hinted at my endless fate.  The sharp saltiness of the blood in my mouth twisted my attempted smile to an ugly grimace.

Giving up the effort to look cheerful, I donned a serene expression.  I repeated my father’s words in my mind and finally began to understand.  He was angry at me for not living up to my potential.  He knew I was intelligent, and he wanted me to stay that way.  How could I accomplish that if my father was not stern with me?  I knew it would not be possible, and then, I understood why my father beat me.  A child only learns if it has the proper incentive, and the most effective one is abuse.  I was no longer bewildered every time my father hit me.  It all made sense.

Even the way he drank to release his pain was clear to me.  He drank so that he did not have to bear the pain that I caused him by failing. Father was a passionate drinker, and he was still perfectly sane.  My mother disagreed.  Yelling at him was stupid, but Mother tried it anyway.  He hit her.  She shut up.  When he did that, I would cry because Mother’s yellow bruises would get an angry color and sometimes ooze.  Now, I smile.  Only a truly insolent woman would have been beaten that way; she got what she deserved.  What a fool she was!  She was too tiny to ever think she could stand up to anyone.  I would have beaten her.  The way I am now, I could have snapped her in two.  It is her fault too, for always disagreeing with Father.  She never even took a sip of wine.  But, that is only fitting; the weak cannot handle the strength of drink.  I drink.  I believe alcohol rejuvenates the passion as well as the soul.  That is the case; though, other people argue me over it, especially my doctor and Susan’s teachers.  It is none of their business, and I refuse to waste the money and time changing my ways when I have no need to.

I do not know how I can explain that to Susan.  She is so young, and I am not sure she would understand.  I need to beat her, or else, she would never learn how to live.  What would happen if she received a poor grade and I didn’t punish her?  She would just continue to flunk in school, and her life would be over.  See, I am saving her life!  A few bruises are a small price to pay for a lifetime of prosperity.  A few bruises hurt no one.  I cannot simply just tell her to do well in school; she would never listen to me.  It is as simple as that.  God, I wish she could understand.  Susan is never hit very hard, and I try to make sure the bruises are not visible.  I have to be careful these days, with all the child services.  I could be arrested.  I would be thrown in a cell to never see my daughter again. That would kill me.

My father was never careful.  In those days, the rules were lax.  I remember going to school with a black eye and cuts, but the teachers never gave a second glance.  The other kids would make fun of me, though, calling me “the-white-girl-who-is-black.” It bothered me for a little while, until I finally beat one of them up.  No one ever made fun of me again.  I cried after I hit that boy.  Seeing the blood all over his face scared me.  The blood all over my hands just made it worse.  I could not understand what had made me hurt him.

I was not a strong girl, not nearly as strong as Susan.  My father would have liked Susan better. I am sure of it.  Susan is strong and curious. She is successful in school and almost never misbehaves. It is right though, that when she does misbehave she is properly disciplined.  Otherwise, she would become lazy and soft. I can never allow that to happen.  If ever those horrible traits were to develop in my daughter, well, I couldn’t bear it.

Susan is calling me. I must go. I will speak with you again soon, Thomas, promise.  I still do not know how to answer our daughter’s question.  You are my savior. You let me speak my mind.  I love you.  I know you died before your daughter was born, but you still mean everything to me, and I am sure that Susan will understand that someday.


Love always,


                                                  Elly Bleier




Yellow Daze


Sweat, warm and sticky, dripped off my forehead, a wicker basket scraped my forearm, and a tattered, often-worn woven sunhat sat on my head.  Dust rose high in the air, covering my new, sky blue, flower-printed, dress, in a layer of soft brown.  Horses of all size and stature obediently pulled creaking, aged, wooden carts up and down the streets.  The market in the early mornings was filled with a large variety of sounds, such as scrappy stray dogs with bells slung around their necks, or a salesperson’s desperate cry, and cart horses spooking and crying out in fear.

I swung my free hand around, using my palm to wipe the bothersome sweat off my sunburned forehead.  I wasn’t hot.  In fact, I was a bit chilly, but the sweat was infuriating, and kept me from the task at hand, returning home swiftly and safely.

“Bread!  Bread!  Get yer bread!  Fresh outa tha oven!” a man pranced around his stand, a stained apron hung around his neck, covering his grimy white, almost yellow, shirt.  He held a sparkling, fresh loaf of bread in his fat, filthy hands.  Stains of black dirt were left on the side of the once pure bread when the man lifted his hand to try and pester a passerby.

“Vegetables!  Vegetables!  We got corn, potatas, and lettuce!  Come and get yur vegetables while they’re still here! ”  Ansley, my neighbor, called from across the way,her simple yellow dress flapping in the lazy, warm Louisiana wind.

I walked farther down the streets hurriedly, but a strong wind passed, flooding the street with more muggy warmth.  I shuddered uncontrollably, shivers creeping up my spine.  I stopped and composed myself, then continued walking down the street.

“Would ya like yur fortune read, dearie?”  a slick, oily voice called from a gloomy alleyway.  “I can tell you anythin’ ya’d like to know. Anythin’,” his tired voice rasped.  I scowled at the man, black clad, propped up against a wall, as usual.

Stopping, I glared menacingly, and the mosquito that I was sure had been following me for several days, took the chance and bit my wrist.  I slapped at it, missed, and an angry red welt slowly crept up my forearm.

“Ah, come on, pretty little lady.  Just one little fortune?”  he crooned, laughter glittering in his eyes.  I shot daggers at him, and stomped off with my head held high.

Turning the first corner in sight, I walked down a more subtle, calm street.  I sighed after the stress of the main thoroughfare, and slowed to a lazier pace.

Glancing down into my pale cream wicker basket, I used my free hand to shift under the scratchy cloth bag of coffee beans and twenty fresh carrots, courtesy of Ansley, to make sure that my drawstring bag full of my mother’s food money was safe. When looked up, my house was straight ahead.  I sped up my pace, but waves of nausea clawed at my stomach, making my head pound furiously.  I slowed down, knowing that if I continued to run, I would become sick.  Plus, mother would shout at me, saying I was being unladylike, running down the street.

I turned sharply to the left as my stomach jolted once more, ran up the front steps, and threw the door open wildly.  My pulsating headache took over my body.  All I could think about was my aching stomach and the throbbing, pulsing pang in the back of my head.  I sprinted unevenly through the hallways, my dress flapping behind my legs, my bare feet slapping rigidly on the hardwood floor.

“What is that terrible racket? Marie, what in Heaven’s name are you doing?”  mother called in her typical formal fashion.  My legs weakened, and I stumbled and fell to the ground, cracking my head on the cold, hard floor.  Mother’s feet came into view, and I moaned while another wave of pain washed out all other senses.

“I got your food,”  I whispered to her feet, before plunging into unconsciousness.

 ◊                ◊                ◊

Mother had undoubtedly moved me to my bed because the first time I woke up, soft, plush pillows and blankets, all angelically white, came into vision slowly. Mother talked hastily to a man outside the door.

“It’s the fever,” a man with a rough, tired voice warily told my mother.

“Not Yellow Fever!  Please save my little angel!” Mother sobbed, her desperate cries of mourning ripping out my soul.  My stomach jolted violently at the memory of the terrible fate my father and two older brothers had met.

“Yes, Yellow Fever.  We’ve been trying to keep it quiet, but half this side of New Orleans is already sick.  Change her sheets when she vomits.  Call me back in two days if she’s still living, and I will bleed her. Only God can truly save her now,” the doctor’s voice faded.  Pain spun through my head once more, and I sunk back down into unconsciousness.

 ◊                ◊                ◊

I was there, playing catch with Brian and Georgie in a park I didn’t recognize.  Sunlight streamed around us, blocking out any other sight.  I smiled, and stretched my arms up to catch the blue and red striped ball.  It turned to lead and hit me in the stomach.  I screamed as it rolled away in the grass, and doubled over in pain.

 ◊                ◊                ◊

 Petite white clouds floated up to my face, soft and cool, soothing to the heat of my skin.  I opened my eyes, and a tar-like substance stained the perfection of the white sheets. The black blood trickled over my bottom lip and into the dark pond below.  I had no control over my body, and when I began to scream, it came mercilessly, rattling my body.  I welcomed the pounding, agonizing pain, since the result was unconsciousness.

 ◊                ◊                ◊

Georgie taunted me from up high in the Magnolia tree, holding my doll in the air loosely.  I shrieked, but he just laughed.  I stomped my foot and crossed my arms over my chest, tears welling up in my eyes.

            “Oh, don’t cry Marie!” He was suddenly next to me, crouching in the soft green grass, and my doll was in my lap without a scratch. “This is a wonderful place! You’ll like it here.”  So I wiped my tear stained cheeks, took his hand, and followed him to the edge of the yard.  Looking over the edge of the fence, I saw my bedroom, myself in the bed.  The black blood was still sloshing around in my lap as I thrashed deliriously. 

            “Georgie, I wanna go back!” I complained, sounding like a little girl again.

            “Alright. But remember this: You will eventually come here. If not today, another day. But you, my sweet sister, will always end up here.”

 ◊                ◊                ◊

My eyelids fluttered, and Mother took a deep, shaky breath.  I was lying in my bed, Mother craning her neck over me, dark rings under her eyes.

“Are you gonna be alright?” she asked, silent tears streaming down her face.

“Yes, Mama.  And you?” I asked.  Mother reached out tentatively and stroked my cheek gently.

“Yeah, doin’ better now that you’re better.  It’s been a tough few weeks without you,” she whispered, her eyes and cheeks glossy with tears.  I sighed, and pushed my head farther back into my pillow. “You are going to be alright, are you not?” mother asked, straightening in her chair.

“Yes, Mama.  I’m gonna be alright.  We both are.”


Emma Dougherty


Always Hiding


I hide, crouching

The dogs sniff and bark


In hope of my flesh

Too bad

This is one girl

They’ll never catch

I am a shadow

He has never tamed me

Me who bit and kicked

Me who saw my brother sold

Me who picked his cotton

Never had I felt such a vengeance

As for the man who lashed

His whip painting me

With red stripes

Perfect really

For I was a tiger

A predator out for blood

Self preservation all that was left

Out in the heat of the day

Shackled to my desperate life

Listening to the laughter

Of my master, my mistress

The songs at night were all I lived for

Telling of the plan to run

The plan to live

A death wish if it failed

The woman has saved us

She who conducts the oppressed

She who will lead us to shelter

She is my liberation

The escape was tonight

Simple really

Until the dogs came

And now we hide

They move closer

Urged on by their masters

My masters

All because of the pigment in my skin

The leaves crackle as I burrow

Hoping to give me away

I must outsmart my enemies

But first the leaves

Their musty aroma tickles

I clamp my fingers onto my nose

And will myself not to sneeze

Will myself to live

I can still escape from this

Crouching lower

Breathing more quietly

Are the acts that can save me now

A dog is next to me

Detecting my familiar scent

Sweat and determination

This dog knows me

It passes

It looked me in the eye

And passed

It is more intuitive than I expect

A stick snaps nearby

Shattering the air

Somebody has been spotted

He tries to run

He sprints in the wrong direction


Then it hits me

They are saving the rest of us

It has worked, the hunters led away

I am safe for now

But only for now

All because of the color of my skin.



I hide, huddled, I wait

The voices drone

The footsteps ramble on

I am trapped


Or certain doom

Waits just outside

I listen to the boots

Horror may follow

Hardship to be endured

Pain to overcome

Agony to cry over

This is no stranger

We burned in Egypt

We freeze in Lodz

I listen to my peoples’ screams

I can’t scream

Even with the anger

The vengeance

Needing a release

For that will mean


That will mean


Burrowing deeper

Into a chest of furs

Older than I am


Swaddled like a baby

In a nest of safety

Just an illusion

For my kidnappers wait

Slowing my breathing to a crawl

Not trusting my own


Which could give me away


Curling smaller

An animal in my den

Resisting predators

Who hope to tear me apart

I must endure

I will not surrender

Never will they take me

I will not be forgotten

Quietly concealed

I make a silent promise

To save myself

To be my own salvation

All that can come to my aid,

Are the Germans outside

The ones who took me in

Who break the law to save me

They know what would happen

If not for their kindness

A train ride

To a death camp

Noticing the reek of burning bodies

Knowing I would follow soon

Feeling the ribs beneath my clothes

Thinking it a mercy to die

Knowing that no salvation

Could convince them

To open the gates

And let these people go

That could be me

If not for my protectors,

Who try to distract the intruders outside

As they try to find me

Their voices tearing through my mind

All because of

The yellow star

Pinned on my coat



They whisper behind me

Mouths rearranging

Into malicious gossip

Not harmless jokes

Ugg boots

Feather in hair

Lip gloss on

Painted nails

On the outside

I am perfect

Not an outsider

Only I separate myself

I am not good enough

Not on the inside

Not good enough for them

Those who taunt me

With their perfect smiles

Easy banter


They are Careless

Huddled inside my chest

My true self wishes to escape

But I can’t let it

They would tear it apart

Tear it with their perfect nails

Their sharpened tongues

Soccer cleats

Diamond earrings

I can’t beat them

So I have joined them

Become one of them

At least on the outside

The girl who used to wear


And bandannas

And glasses

Has hidden

Painted herself in makeup

Draped herself in brand-names

And faded into the background

But they are always looking

For a way to tear away the façade

To expose the child beneath

And to shred that to pieces

Just a simple comment

Whispered at the lunch table

Can lead to a downward spiral

Through the social ladder

It only takes one bad haircut

To expose the innocence

So carefully


No number of disguises

Will ever be sufficient

To hide my true self

It will never be enough

The only option is

To stick it out

Until I can escape

To the real world

The world where it doesn’t matter

What your hair looks like

Or how your face is painted

Or how you are clothed

That would be the only place

Where I could stop hiding

Just because of my differences

If there is such a world


Maddy Rice