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A lesson in compassion
First place

By Michelle Huffman, 17, Bellaire High School, Bellaire, Michigan.

Her name was Crystal. She was the nicest person I’d ever met. She wasn’t what you’d call average. She could outrun, out-joke and outsmart the best of them, even though she had Down’s syndrome, a chromosome disorder characterized by mental deficiencies and physical irregularities.

There were times that her Down’s syndrome caused Crystal great heartaches. She would go home from school in tears because her fellow classmates called her retarded and stupid.

I never once called her names. But then again, I never stood up for her either. While other people inhumanely mocked or teased her, I sat and talked to her like nothing was happening. I tried to ignore the remarks. I just kept on talking to her and hoped it would all stop. I felt really out of place and insecure in the situation. Being young, I had a lot to lose if I stood up for her. I could’ve been rejected, too. I wasn’t ready for that.

The teasing at school became so terrible and frequent that Crystal was transferred to a school for the handicapped. There she wasn’t mocked. She stopped going home in tears. She was no longer different. She was the norm. She finally fit in. During those years, she was the happiest that I’d ever seen her.

In 1994, she was diagnosed with leukemia. I remember how scared I was for her, but she seemed so calm and unaffected. Along with her diagnosis came the treatments that led to the side effects. Crystal lost her hair, developed sores on her body and retained a lot of water. When we’d walk downtown or go in stores, people stared at her and some even laughed.

It angered me beyond words, but I continued to ignore all the mocking and rude comments. She was teased mercilessly for being handicapped and now she had to deal with the glares and snickers of the people who didn’t understand her disease and didn’t take the time to get to know her. I hated the world for her pain.

Crystal died in 1996. The entire school attended her funeral. Everyone cried, and I felt like they were all hypocrites. They caused her so much pain, now they were coming to pay their respects? Why couldn’t they respect her while she was alive? Why couldn’t they make her life happier? Maybe they felt guilty for what they had done and were being remorseful. Who knows? But I do know that Crystal left a lasting impression on my life. She taught me unconditional love and that it’s OK to accept peoples’ differences.

My fondest memories of Crystal have served as tools for living my life. I’ve realized how even though you don’t perpetrate teasing, if you don’t do anything about it, you are even more at fault. So if you see someone being teased and they take it without saying anything, you should speak up for them. I am thankful for my time with Crystal. She made me more aware that discrimination is painful and wrong. Because of her, I try to befriend everyone and I stick up for people who chose not to for themselves. I believe everyone should be accepted and cherished for their differences. I have Crystal to thank for teaching me that.

Because I’m black

Second Place

By Marquita Jones, 17, Dominguez High School (Compton)

When I was 7, my whole family went to a pool in Bellflower Park. I remember sitting in the ice-cold water. My feet were chilled. I was so excited to be there.

I was playing alone until I saw this little girl playing by herself. She had long blond hair and cool green eyes. We both were in the three-foot section and were splashing water everywhere. I admired her because we had on the same bathing suit. "Hi, my name is Marquita," I said and then asked for her name. She really did not notice that I was talking to her, so I repeated myself. It took her forever to talk or even look at me. But then she did. "My name is Cindy," she said.

Cindy was looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I could tell that she did not want to look at me. "Cindy, would you like to play?" I asked and bounced a beach ball toward her. She began to cry and became very hysterical.

Then her mother came out of nowhere and started screaming at me. My mother heard the yells and she raced over as quickly as she could, although she was in a different section of the pool.

"What’s going on? Why is this baby crying?" my mother asked. Cindy’s mother said that I hit her daughter.

"I didn’t touch her," I said. "I was just trying to play with her."

Cindy’s mother turned and looked right at me. "My daughter does not play with black people," she said with the ugliest voice I’ve ever heard.

My heart sank. I was hurt and disgusted. The words she said were disrespectful and out of line. I swam away and played with my family for the rest of the time and tried to enjoy the park.

I will never forget that awful day because I’d never experienced discrimination until then. I am 17 and live my life with love, respect and happiness. I do not plan on hating anyone or discriminating against anyone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think." I think that explains the right to be a different race.

Held back because I speak Spanish

Third Place

By Natalie Campos, 16, Verdugo Hills HS

I was raised speaking English, but I also spoke Spanish at home. When I went to school for the first time, I was enrolled in E.S.L. classes—English as a Second Language. I was also put in the Limited English Proficiency Program. In all these classes, I always got the highest grades. I was the best reader and speaker they had. There was no reason for me to be in any of those classes.

My parents had no idea that I was in any of those classes. They thought that I was in regular classes with other students who spoke English. But they eventually found out and went to investigate why I was in there. But the school administration stood quiet. They had nothing to say. My parents tried to get me out of the E.S.L. classes, but they were unable to. The school fought very hard to keep me in those classes. And then we found out why—for every student the school had in the E.S.L. and Limited English Proficiency Program, they would receive $400.

This was pretty devastating. The school’s only excuse for keeping me there was because I lived in a Spanish-speaking household, and that I was influenced by the way my parents spoke. My parents were outraged. I remained in the E.S.L. and Limited English Proficiency Program until I was in fifth grade. At this time, my parents really started fighting for me to get out of those programs.

I switched to a new school. The principal at this school knew my parents and told them that I was going to take a test. If I passed it, they would immediately take me out of the E.S.L. and Limited English Proficiency Program. Everyone knew that I was going to pass it. I took the test and I aced it. The questions were ridiculous. It had questions like: How do you spell "king?"

I was immediately taken out of those programs. I was back on track and still ahead of the game. The first school I had attended would have never let me out of those programs or even let me take the test. I was too "Spanish" for them.

This experience taught me many things. Most importantly though, it taught me not to judge people by the way they look. On the outside, I was viewed as a Spanish-speaking girl who did not know a word of English. But on the inside, I was way ahead of most of those who judged me. I am trying my hardest not to view other Latino kids as only being E.S.L. students. Once in a while I still do that, but I try not to most of the time. When I catch myself thinking like that, I remind myself that I was once in their shoes.