Mastering the blank page starts with Belmont’s youngest writers, said Lindsey Rinder, director of English, ELL and Reading.
Speaking before an audience of students, parents, educators and the trio of Belmont High School’s outstanding seniors writers at the annual Lillian Blacker Awards, Rinder recalled a first grader coming to her before writing her very first story.
“I’ve never been an author before and I’m nervous,” she told Rinder.
And while Belmont students’ writing journey begins with stories of buried treasurer, the capstone is the Senior Thesis, a 10-to-15 page critical analysis of literature that each 12th grade student must submit to complete their English requirement for graduation.
The year-long task involves reading multiple primary sources, studying at three libraries and online, creating countless note cards and revising, reappraising and sometimes tearing up papers during the depths of the winter quarter. Many students, even those recognized for their outstanding scholarship, cringe remembering the seemingly endless hours spent in a myriad of tasks in constructing a laudable result.
And it is a monumental undertaking, said Rinder, that immerses students in the complexity and profundity of their subject and theme as a way of knowing ones self.
“[T]he study of literature helps us understand who we are … as it encapsulates and dissects our most human qualities; our passions, our frustrations, our capacity of great deception as well as brutal honesty, our dignity as well as our most grieves fails,” she said.
“I believe Belmont High School’s dedication to the senior thesis and to writing education singles it out from most secondary schools,” said Rinder.
And the three honorees; Aldis Elfarsdottir, Hannah Pierce-Hoffman and Samuel Korn, succeeded in impressing their teachers and the department with their work’s depth and insight.
For their accomplishments, the seniors were presented with the Lillian Blacker Awards this past May 16. A long-time Belmont resident, active in education and politics and editor at the Harvard Medical School and the Belmont Citizen newspaper, Blacker’s family created the awards in 1991 to honor her commitment to the art of writing.
Elfarsdottir, who will matriculate at Harvard, said first and foremost she wanted to thank her subject, the modernist novelist Virginia Woolf, of her first-place paper – “In Each of Us Two Powers Preside, One Male, One Female”: Virginia Woolf’s Exploration of Mental Androgyny – “because without her I would not be here to be recognized for my writing.”
She thanked the Blacker family for their recognition of the “hard work and long hours composing our thesis have paid off, literally.”
“I will say that whether we are rewarded or not should not dent our pride in our accomplishment of having planned out, styled, drafted, redrafted, revised, edited and finalized our senior theses. No matter what profession we choose, we know that writing will be an integral to our success,” said Elfarsdottir.
Pierce-Hoffman told the audience that she as ready to present her thesis on “that ‘Blade Runner’ author,” the science fiction author Philip Kindred Dick. She read his work over the summer of her junior/senior year and “discovered I wasn’t a fan …”
When asked by her teacher if she would consider Margaret Atwood, Pierce-Hoffman responded “who is she?”
But reading four novels by the Canadian writer convinced Pierce-Hoffman that “I was a fan of her.” She noticed in the works how language and the words used to express oneself also reflect inner thoughts and by subtle changes in those words, “you can change how one thinks.”
Pierce-Hoffman, who is attending Barnard in the fall, wrote her thesis – Tongue-Untied: Rebellion Through Linguistic Manipulation in Margaret Atwood’s Works – on the cautionary message that “if we don’t watch how we speak today, we are going to end up with a nightmare vision that I see in [Atwood’s] works.”
Korn, who will enter the University of Pennsylvania in September, was inspired by a performance of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” not by the acting – Korn has been active with the Performing Arts Company – but its language.
“Every line reflects troubling truths about grasping realities in our own lives,” said Korn. He added the works of absurdist writer Paul Auster to focus on stories within other stories in his second prize paper, The Pervasive Narrative of Authorial Identity: Metafiction in the Works of Paul Auster & Tom Stoppard.
Yet he admitted that he was like many of his classmates, staying up into the early morning to complete assignments.
“The thesis process is ably named. It is a process,” said Korn, speaking of sorting through hundreds of note cards and article after article, book after book.
“It really is a monument to all sweat, tears and cups of coffee I put into this process,” said Korn. “The thesis process also completely changed me as a writer and a consumer of literature and, for that, I am extremely grateful.”