As a veteran language arts teacher, Paul Ferrante makes sure to expose his Westport middle school students to a multicultural array of writers.
And as a published author himself, Ferrante encourages his pupils to enter writing contests. In his 13 years teaching in Mount Vernon, New York, and 20 years at Bedford and Coleytown, approximately 70 students have won awards.
When Altice USA — the parent company of Optimum and News12 — announced a Hispanic Heritage Month essay contest, Ferrante passed the info on. The prompt: Write about a Latino person, past or present, who inspires you to dream big.
Five of Ferrante’s Bedford Middle School students entered. Most wrote about people they knew from books, culture or history.
Sofia Alarcon wrote about her grandmother.
The 7th grader described her abuela’s life: A political dissident in Argentina who made it her mission to free adults from poverty by teaching them to read and write, Edith Staheli and her husband were arrested by the government.
He disappeared; she was deported. She returned years later — after working in exile for social justice — to educate the poor.
My grandmother inspires me to always give my all and nothing less, and to help those less fortunate than me. She inspires me to try hard, because you don’t know if you can do something if you don’t try. It is her strength that inspires me to fight till the end and this strength motivates me to never stop believing in a more just and equal world.
Because she didn’t stop.
It was a beautiful, insightful essay, Ferrante says.
The judges agreed. They awarded Sofia first prize — and a $1,500 scholarship.
“Her personal stake comes through loud and clear,” Ferrante notes. “Sofia created a passionate tone. And her narrative hook brings the story full circle, in the conclusion.”
The award “couldn’t happen to a nicer person,” he adds.
Sofia’s grandmother, Edith Staheli.
It’s particularly meaningful for 2 reasons, Sofia’s mother Natalia Frias-Staheli, says.
For one, Sofia thinks of herself as a “STEM” — science, technology, engineering and math — person. In writing the essay, Ferrante encouraged her to push outside her comfort zone.
For another, Sofia’s grandmother died suddenly in September. She was just 66, with many projects still ahead.
Felicitaciones, Sofia. You are already dreaming big!