Three students in the East Rockaway School District were recognized at the Jan. 23 Board of Education meeting for their submissions into the Andrew Stern Memorial Essay Contest.
About 600 students in all grade levels participated in the contest, which is named in honor of Stern, an East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School alumnus who died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sophomore Ezequiel Espinal won at the high school level, eighth-grader Madeleine Prucha earned top honors in the middle school category and Centre Avenue sixth-grader William Lewald was the elementary school winner.
“If you have any doubt that our kids are listening, don’t doubt,” said Lisa Burch, Stern’s sister. “They’re listening.”
The contest has been a district-wide tradition for more than a decade. Each year, the essay contest has a different topic. This year’s theme was based on how the country rallied together in the aftermath of 9/11, and how, in many ways, it is divided in 2018. The students were asked what could be done to bring the country back to being a place where everyone supported one another.
Burch said that many of the essays were striking. “If you could read what some of these students said about what’s happening in the world today, what they see, [and] what they hear … they see what’s going on,” she said, “and they have some really, really interesting suggestions to get us back to that place.”
The three winners were handed citations by the Board of Education and read their essays aloud to those gathered at the meeting. The essay question is presented to students every year on Sept. 11, and the entrees are collected in November. Stern’s family members then read them over before making their decision each January.
Burch said that even though it has gotten to the point where many students were not yet born or were very young on Sept. 11, 2001, the essays are more insightful with each passing year.
“To me, the most striking [message] was the most simple,” Burch said. “Just be nicer to each other. I cant’ tell you how many kids wrote about being nicer to each other.”