Empowered Monument Mountain writers inspire audience and themselves

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By Saturday, May 20 Learning  1 Comment
Andrew Blechman
Monument Mountain Regional High School junior Sheila Francisco reads from her essay 'The Cow's Future,' at the West Stockbridge Historical Society. (See text of her essay below)

West Stockbridge — Ten female high schoolers from Monument Mountain Regional High School read their works of writing to a packed audience in West Stockbridge on Friday, May 12, as part of the fifth annual Monument Girls Write On! project. The girls, ranging from freshmen to seniors, were handpicked by the high school English department to present their work, which ranged from poetry to essays to creative nonfiction and fiction. (See samples of work by these writers following this article.)

A sense of female empowerment was palpable as, one by one, the students read their work from a podium at the West Stockbridge Historical Society.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been chosen to do something like this,” said Alyssa Mack, a junior who read two of her poems. “It’s the first time I’ve ever read my own work to a room full of people. I’ve never even spoken in front of an audience before. But I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be. I was afraid I’d mess up — but I didn’t. It was a great experience.” Alyssa read two poems, including one about cell phone addiction.

Freshman Phaedra Duhon, who wrote a short story called “Beautiful,” agreed that it was a nerve-wracking experience to read in front of an audience. “But I really liked it,” she said. “It was rewarding to share my writing, and to get the chance to meet a lot of new people.” The chance for the girls to get to know one another and develop a sense of camaraderie as writers, especially given that they are in different classes and school years, is a big element behind the project.

Junior Sheila Francisco opened the reading with her parable about a village that learns to become more self-reliant by embracing the unknown. “It’s based on a life lesson I learned from my father,” Sheila explained. “I was going through a difficult time thinking about college and my future, and my father told me a story to help.” As for reading in front of an audience for the first time, Sheila explained: “I was so nervous, but I went into my bubble of confidence. It was a wonderful experience for me.”

Sheila credited Monument for her writing skills. “My teachers at Monument have really helped me express myself and get my words out there,” she said.

The 10 students from Monument Mountain Regional High School who were chosen to participate in the Monument Girls Write On! spoken word event that took place Friday, May 12, at the West Stockbridge Historical Society. Photo: Andrew Blechman

The 10 students from Monument Mountain Regional High School who were chosen to participate in the Monument Girls Write On! spoken word event that took place Friday, May 12, at the West Stockbridge Historical Society. Photo: Andrew Blechman

Much of the writing presented contained an often key element: authenticity of raw emotion. Autumn Duke, a junior, read a story from the point of view of a transgendered student, which included the line: “I am a boy, despite appearances, despite what anyone says.” Said Autumn, “I felt that this is a story that needed to be told.”

English teacher Lisken Van Pelt Dus recalled meeting Autumn for the first time in class. “She sat quietly in the back of the class like she didn’t have anything to say,” Dus told the audience. “Then I saw her writing. I immediately understood that she has a lot to say, and in such a graceful yet powerful way.”

Sophie Cohen, who will be attending MIT in the fall, presented for the third time. “I just love writing,” she explained. “I’ve always written for fun, ever since I can remember. Writing helps me make sense of things.”

The evening ended with a powerful essay about succeeding against the odds by Celia Armstrong. In the essay, Celia explains that she comes from a difficult financial background but that she has been able to succeed through hard work and positive reinforcement from her teachers at Monument, unlike many of her friends in Pittsfield who have succumbed to taking and dealing drugs.

“My family has always been in the lower class financially,” she read from her essay, titled “Breaking the Ties that Bind You:” “…. The truth is if you’re willing to put in the hard work, anything is possible. Everyone has the ability to be some form of successful…. Having just one person believe in us makes all the difference in the world.”

“So many kids in Pittsfield that I know don’t have anyone there to believe in them, to show them that, if they work a little harder, they can get out of what they’re in,” Celia explained. “At Monument, we have teachers who really care about us and see us as individuals.

“The piece itself is very meaningful to me,” she continued. “It was not easy to share. A lot of the kids down here don’t know what it’s like to go through the things I’ve been through. But I felt people needed to hear it. I used to get very frustrated when I was younger, but my struggle has made me stronger as a person. You don’t have to be stuck anywhere; you can make it out. But it’s really made me realize how much people need positive reinforcement in their lives and what happens when they don’t get it.

“Celia was so shy, so soft-spoken in class as a freshman,” English teacher Michael Rosenthal said. “For her to stand up two years later and testify to who she is and how she overcame her surroundings–that’s amazing.”

Lorrin Krouss, who has been involved with the program since it started as a branch of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, said Celia and her classmates inspired her tremendously. “Such courage,” Krouss said. “To see a student speak about her challenges and overcoming them and to share such pure gratitude for her education — that’s priceless.

“I’ve been to every reading,” she added. “I would never miss one, because these girls give you a piece of themselves in everything they write.”

As for Rosenthal, the English teacher, his beaming delight was a clear high point of the year. “I feel like I hardly need fuel in my car to drive home,” he explained. “I feel like I could just drive fueled by my own pride and happiness. These girls are that amazing. And to see them filled with such confidence in their writing and themselves–that feeling is just, wow.”

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Uncontrolled Substance

By Alyssa Mack

A new form of addiction
Is what has begun
Strung out on technology
Making you numb

Feeling no pleasure
Without a phone check
Losing social interaction
Looking down; kinking your neck

Neither family or friends
Can converse without interruptions
Feels like convenience
Yet it’s the biggest disruption

Time used to be treated with value
Now the present seems rushed
Quality time with one-another?
Shunned abruptly with a hush

This new substance is accepted
Even though all results are negative
Good conversation is close to impossible
When the recipient isn’t attentive

A whole generation obsessed
With a simple invention
Positively a horrific outcome
If there was a suddenly a malfunction

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The Cow’s Future

By Sheila Francisco

I believe in throwing the cow off a cliff and growing my village. Now I know what I just said is crazy talk but let me explain. There was once a professor who was studying different villages and what it was that sustained them and kept them alive. So when he went to the first village he saw that all the people looked unhealthy and skinny and many were dying. He went to the chief of the village and asked “what is it that keeps your village alive?”. And the chief replied “our cow keeps us alive.” And so he explained that all the village spent most of their time taking care of the cow, keeping it healthy and alive so they could have an income of nutrients. This was their only source of nutrients and the only thing keeping them alive. And so that night the professor had an idea and told his assistant to secretly take the cow and throw it off a cliff. And the next day the professor left.

A year later he remembered about the village and decided to go back and see what the outcome of his plan would be. So, when he arrived at the village he saw that all the village people were healthy and happy and there was more people, houses, and food. The village had grown and flourished. He went to see the village chief and asked him “how did this happen?” And so the village chief explained to the professor that when they had found their cow dead they were devastated and thought they were doomed. But they came to an idea to sell the cow’s meat and buy chickens with the money they made. And so the chickens laid eggs and more chickens were reproduced and more eggs were made. Then when they had enough eggs they started selling them to other villages. Then they bought more animals, vegetables, fruit trees. And eventually the village grew and flourished into something bigger.

The Cow is our safety net, it could be our hometown, a teacher, a job we’re not happy with but sustains us. It is anything that keeps us from growing but has us in a comfortable spot. So sometimes we need to get rid of that safety net in order to live life. In order to open doors of new opportunities and new experiences. If we stay in the same place and depend on our safety net we will not grow or learn anything. Life is about doing what you want not imagining it. The only reason the village flourished was because their safety net was gone. If the professor’s assistant had not thrown the villagers cow over the cliff , they wouldn’t have grown or realized that there was more than the cow.

I see this everyday with kids, students, and even adults. They are all in places they don’t want to be in. They could get out but are stuck in a web. A web that we call our safety nets. It holds us back, it keeps us in the same place, and eventually if we never learn to how to get out, we spend the rest of our lives there not knowing what potential we had.

The cow being thrown off the cliff is only the beginning of what can change a person’s life. Just like the village got rid of their safety net and overcame their difficulties, they became stronger. In the end they strived rather than fell. Take control of your life and don’t let it be steered by the web of safety. Sometimes our safety can be our danger.

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Breaking the Ties That Bind You

By Celia Armstrong

Growing up in both Pittsfield, and Housatonic with split parents — I have adapted to both environments. Having lived in the worst parts of Pittsfield including  Circular Ave, Cherry Street, Tyler Street, and currently on Wahconah Street, then I have to come home to quiet, little Housatonic. They are worlds away — I have seen, and been around things that would be considered “unimaginable” to the people of small, quiet towns around here. Including drug deals happening close to me, and experiencing having to sell things out of the house to be able to buy dinner for that night. Though the issue of drug and gang violence could happen anywhere — I have watched kids fall victim to it more in Pittsfield. I’ve watched some of my friends grow up with their siblings, and sometimes their parents who are battling addictions. Maybe even himself or herself with the addiction. Unfortunately, it all gets the best of them.

I’ve watched a boy who I’ve had an off-and-on relationship with fall deeper, and deeper into running the streets, dropping any progress he had made in school, and in anything good for him in general just at the young age of 18. When things told me he’s pointed in the wrong direction, something kept telling me he needed me, because I’m the only one who gave him positive reinforcement in his life. Shouldn’t someone have tried? For those who don’t believe it happens — it very much does. There have been multiple shootings in the past few months that are said to be likely gang related. There is no likely about it, and everyone is aware of that. In a survey PHS conducted at their school — only out of 57 students who actually agreed to take the survey out of a total of almost 920 students — 60 percent of them admitted to using drugs, and 26 percent of the students were dependent on that drug, and, or used it very frequently.

Here at Monument, I believe we have some of the best teachers, and guidance I have ever seen at a school. They truly like to see hard work, and when they see you working hard they are the happiest to help you achieve your goals. Some students get annoyed, but this concerns me. We should be so, very thankful for them being involved.

My family has always been in the lower class financially. Usually keeping me from the extra activities at school, because my family couldn’t afford it. We were scraping by most of the time, and to a lot of kids here at Monument Mountain — the idea of “scraping by” is a foreign one. I had to get a job as soon as I was old enough to obtain one. Going from babysitting, to working as a busser, and now as a waitress. Even while working I have managed to always remain on honors, and high honors. I have worked very hard to get money for the things I have, and I have written many essays to apply for financial aid for things, which includes my trip to Ecuador this summer. It has been my lifelong dream to travel to a Spanish speaking country. I have never traveled anywhere near to outside of the country, and this will be my first time ever on a plane. I believed it was possible if I worked hard enough for it, and I never thought of giving up. The truth is, if you’re willing to put in the hard work anything is possible. Everyone has the ability to be some form of successful. Just because your environment is the way it is does not mean you have to be a hamster stuck in the loop. The excuse for your life being a struggle, is no excuse to take the “easy” way out, and sell drugs and commit to a gang. It’s being shiftless because you’re thinking about how unfair it is, how other kids get things handed to them as if life is a free ride, and seem to have a perfect life compared to yours. Or how unfairly your hand was dealt. I have thought about this over and over, the idea of how truly unfair it is. It’s only been motivation for me to work harder, and push harder towards my goals.

Thankfully the staff of Monument Mountain notices, and recognizes this hard work, and they are there for me every step of the way. Every school should have staff giving their students information about options, and recognizing hard work, and pushing students to go farther. To have teachers that want to show students where things can lead them in life. We all need to work hard for ourselves, but it helps to have someone else see the good inside us, and it motivates us to do better. Having just one person believe in us makes all the difference in this world.


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One Comment   Add Comment

  1. Beth Carlson says:

    Speaking of empowerment, it seems like Mr. Blechman could have used “young women” once or twice here. The quotes from those who are well acquainted with the young women refer to the students as girls, and this more casual terminology is appropriate for those who are more intimate with them. Try reversing genders on this article and talking about boy writers.

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