The contest results are in and we are proud to publish the first-place winning essay in our winter, 2012 contest. Guest judge Shanti Bannwart sent these words about Kate Allen’s “I Grew Up in That Place”:
The essay is a touching example of the mythological Hero’s Journey – or better the Heroine’s Journey: the challenge of encountering the dragons and ghosts of our “tribe,” the seduction of money and safety and the final discovery of her own voice and calling. This personal journey is placed in the outer turmoil of political and social upheaval that mark and crystallize the protagonist’s destiny and imprison her inside her cultural beliefs until she – finally – achieves personal power and choice. How simply and humbly this big topic is handled using an unpretentious style. The author is deeply honest, authentic and original in her descriptions. She is truly showing instead of telling; her details are down-to-earth. She fulfills our natural desire for arc of story and a meaningful ending. I follow her tale with engagement, and I care that she succeeds in life. She is one of those trees that slowly grows through a crack in the asphalt. Wow! I think this essay could morph into a coming-of-age memoir, one that provides an insider view of American life during a time of great change.
I Grew Up in That Place
by Kate Allen
There was only one high school in my hometown. Well, that can’t be right—there was only one high school for white kids, and there was only one for black kids. We white kids never thought about the other school, that is, until we heard about busing.
In one ear, as a 14-year-old ninth grader, I was unconsciously collecting facts, stories, and fears of the coming end of life as we knew it. It was 1964, and the passage of the Civil Rights Voting Bill had left my small Texas town part of a stunned and segregated South. Still in my other ear, I collected all the usual adolescent girl stuff: who the cheerleaders were going with, what our rivals in the next little town were up to, who may have been pregnant. I so well remember trying to learn how to fit in with the “bankers’ daughters,” the reigning symbol of dignity in our town, since living on the wrong side of the tracks had provided me a good deal of shame and upper-level poverty to learn from.
Even at a very early age, I remember wanting out of that life. I didn’t want to live as part of the working poor. I didn’t want to be a nobody. And I wanted to be more than somebody’s wife! Looking and acting like the bankers’ daughters seemed a good start. The drama in my family had a great deal to do with in which social class we would end up. My mother, a well-respected secretary at the local bank, struggled to push us into middle class. She damn well cared what the neighbors thought. She borrowed money to send my older sister to a state college—no degree was expected, just getting a husband with one before four years was up. Hard work and honesty came from her side of the family.
She expected us to do better than her life; but it was always assumed that marriage was the ticket out. Every fall, she put three dresses on lay-away for each of us; it took her months to pay them off, and we could always count on her, until we were old enough at 14 to get our own summer jobs and start buying all our own clothes.
But she’d married a
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