Eaton student among winners of essay contest imploring young writers to change the world

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Grace Thornton, a fourth-grader at Eaton Elementary, won first place in the annual essay contest in her age group. She’s pictured with, from left, Polly Thornton, Jessie Thornton and Mary Clayman. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Carroll)
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Like many fourth-graders, Grace Thornton has an imaginary friend. But Thornton’s companion, Bobby the dragon, is more than a harmless illusion — he is her inescapable reality.

And during the May 26 “Celebration of Youth” essay contest ceremony at Dupont Circle’s Sumner School Museum, the Eaton Elementary student shared her friend with attendees, reading aloud “Bobby and Me,” which won first place in the fourth-to-sixth-grade division.

Bobby “isn’t the nicest of dragons,” Thornton told the audience. He tells her lies. Bobby says that if Thornton looks at a person and swallows, they will get hurt. He compels Thornton to walk a certain way so her body feels balanced. Soon, it becomes clear: Bobby is a metaphor — and a coping mechanism — for Thornton’s obsessive compulsive disorder.

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“Even though I have this disorder, and other kids do too, remember that you can tame your dragon so he doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable,” Thornton recited from her essay. “Absolutely nothing should stop you from being yourself.”

Thornton’s teacher Mary Clayman is “incredibly proud of Grace’s bravery,” she told The Current, as well as Grace’s selflessness in writing about a difficult issue to help others. Clayman was a winner of this year’s Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Teaching from D.C. Public Schools, and another of her students, Amar Johnson, won third place in the same age bracket.

“She’s really lifted Grace’s writing this year,” Thornton’s mother Polly Thornton said of Clayman.

Thornton’s victory was unanimous, according to contest organizer Dorothea Brady. “She might have received a perfect score. It happens very rarely,” she told The Current.

Brady, who along with her husband has run the essay competition for the past 29 years, created the nonprofit group Global Harmony Through Personal Excellence to support it.

“I think the students are amazing,” Brady said. “Their stories are so touching. Their determination is really inspiring.”

This year’s prompt asked students to discuss a scenario in their lives that they’d like to change, and to describe what they would do to create a better world overall.

One by one, award winners approached the podium to tell their story. One eighth-grader, Taniya Gaddis, recalled foraging through trash cans for food when her alcoholic, abusive mother forgot to feed her. Gaddis now lives with her grandmother and attends Wheatley Education Campus in Northeast, although she hopes to reunite with her mother someday. Gaddis’ classmate Nathan Minor leans on school to escape his unhappy home life. Antoinette Jean-Baptiste — a fifth-grader at Whittier Education Campus in Brightwood who won second place in her age division — hopes to mend her parents’ broken relationship and to see her father more often. While many students described extraordinary adversity, each story brimmed with hope.

When Johanna Acosta-Gonzalez relocated to D.C. from El Salvador last year, she spoke no English. This year, Acosta-Gonzalez won first place in the seventh-to-ninth-grade division for an essay she wrote about her critically ill father in El Salvador. Acosta-Gonzalez, also a Whittier student, hopes to “save money and do whatever I can to some day bring him here to live with me and get better,” she told the audience.

While her essay was written in Spanish, Acosta-Gonzalez read it aloud in English. “I was very nervous,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “I practiced a lot.”

Essay contest organizer Dorothea Brady, center, was joined by Sloane Rogers and Marty Davis at the May 26 ceremony at the Sumner School Museum. (photo courtesy of Rebecca Carroll)

Along with a panel of 10 judges, Brady sifted through about 200 essays to find 14 winners and note 21 more as highly commended. Place-winners received cash prizes of $100 to $350.

“You’d just read one [essay] after another, and it presents this huge picture of people who are really struggling, and these students are so resilient,” contest judge Helene Krauthamer, an English professor at the University of the District of Columbia, told The Current. “That they’re able to even write about it and have a voice about it, it’s truly incredible. And then you wonder about the children who can’t say anything. These are the spokespeople.”

When the contest concluded, Brady was swarmed by families who emphatically thanked her for her efforts. After each exchange, Brady enveloped the parent or participant in an embrace. It’s clear Brady is more than the contest’s organizer: She is its matriarch.

“The whole bottom line about this contest is, it’s really about hearing their wisdom and supporting the students in their own expression,” Brady told the audience. “This is their platform.”