‘Something to Say’: Blacker Prizes Honor ‘Insight’ in Writing, and Life

Photo: The Blacker Prize winners: (from left, front) Eunice Lee, Devon Carter, Sarita Shea with English advisors (back) Nathaniel Markley and Dr. Kristin Comment.

They unveiled society’s truth in the writings of a French existentialist, explored the paradigm of linguistic suppression within dystopian literature, and provide their thoughts on women, men, love and marriage in the novels of Jane Austen.

For the past 34 years, Belmont High School seniors have slogged through a process in which, as one said, “is a year-long marathon” in which selecting the right – or wrong – author must mesh a theme, no matter how messy the process.

But the senior theses is not the culmination of a single project, but of 12 years of English language learning and instruction, said Lindsey Rinder, director of English, ELL and Reading for the Belmont School District.


From writing their first stories in first grade to creating critical analysis of literature with primary and secondary sources when they graduate, “this is testimony to both our students endeavor and to their education. I believe Belmont High School’s dedication to the senior thesis and to writing education in general singles it out from most secondary schools,” said Rinder.

The senior thesis is not simply a writing exercise, but also the study of literature “that helps us understand who we are,” as it encapsulates and dissects our most human qualities; “our passions and our frustrations, our capacity for great deception as well as brutal honesty, our dignity as well as our most grieves failings.”

On Wednesday, May 20, the Belmont Public School English Department honored three senior student theses writers with the Lillian F. Blacker Prizes for Excellence in Writing.

“Tonight we celebrate our students and ourselves as literate and literary creatures,” said Rinder, as she introduced the honorees; first prize winner Sarita Shea, second prize Devon Carter and third prize Eunice Lee.

The three-winning works can be viewed below.

If there was one certainty when she began the theses process, “I was very clear about just one thing … I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do,” said Lee, who will be attending Harvard College in the fall. Her work, “Freedom in Exile: The Development of Intellectual Independence in Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels.”


So she took a list of authors provided to the students, “so I took about four of these … based on how famous their names were and started reading excerpts from their novels.”

“I found out that this was a very important part of the selection process, sampling the flavor of an author’s writing before one commits to the full course,” said Lee. She finally selected Nabokov as his prose “is absolutely gorgeous.”

The Brown-bound Carter selected the Romantic poet Lord Byron – “The Torrent With the Many Hues of Heaven”: The Replacement of Traditional Morality in Works of Lord Byron” – for how he influenced his generation through not only through his works but also with scandals and outrageous behavior, becoming “the first modern celebrity. Think Kardashian, but talented.”


“I have always been interested in stories, and the way we as humans tell stories and why we tell them,” said Shera, whose theses featured the role of storytelling in the novels of Toni Morrison.

Since storytelling shapes every part of a culture and vice versa, “stories do not exist in isolation … they are constantly interact with the culture that produce them and the cultures that absorb them,” said Shera, who will matriculate at Hampshire College this fall.


“As stories change, so do we. As we change, so do stories,” she said.

For Rinder, these and other notable theses are examples of how students have been transformed into richer learners and people through this task. 

“We see these students in a new light tonight. You are no longer just our children and our students. Your commitment to your work has made you thinkers, intellectuals and writers. You created something new,” said Rinder.

“Now, students, it is incumbent upon you to go out into the world and find a place for your voice. You have something to say, something to contribute.”

Eunice Lee Blacker 3rd Place 2015

Sarita Shera Blacker 1st Place 2015

Devon Carter Blacker 2nd Place 2015

Notable Theses 2015

Mastering the Blank Page: Blacker Awards Honor Three Seniors Who Filled the Bill

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.”

Aldis Elfarsdóttir Blacker 1st Place 2014-3

Sam Korn Blacker 3rd Place 2014-2

Hannah Pierce-Hoffman Blacker 2nd Place 2014-2