A Reflection by 2011 Gala Essay Contest Winner Laneisha McCauley

In September Laneisha McCauley was selected as one of the winners of our Gala Essay Contest and was asked to read her essay at the Folger Shakespeare Library alongside writers including Al Young, Natasha Trethewey, Karen Russell and Amy Dickinson (pictured at right with McCauley). In this essay, she reflects on her experience at the event, and in her AP Literature class at Cardozo Senior High School, which is taught by Board Vice President Frazier O’Leary.

Drinks are being offered to me, not soda pop or apple juice, but the types of drinks you have to be 21 or older to purchase. There are trays with Peking duck, baba ganoush, and other foods I could spell but not pronounce being carried around. A server comes to hold one under my nose every three minutes or so. Everyone is dressed to impress because it’s a “black-tie event”. Photographers are snapping photos of me, me with him, me with her, me with them. I don’t know how I fit in there. All I did was write an essay.

That was the night of the PEN/Faulkner Gala at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and it was one of my favorite experiences that came from being in AP Literature class at Cardozo Senior High School. It was around that same time that we were given an assignment to write a personal essay that most colleges would ask for. At the time, I didn’t put much thought into it because I was only doing it for the class, but months later I used that same essay to gain acceptance into five different colleges. Some of the writing I did in class was actually helpful, and some of the essays I really did enjoy writing. There were also assignments that I wasn’t so enthusiastic about.

This past semester was particularly difficult for me because I lacked the motivation that I had in the beginning of my senior year. I joked about my doctor recommending that I stop doing things that would cause stress, like writing essays.  I missed more days in class and in school my senior year than I had any previous year in high school. I waited to the last minute to do things, if I did them at all. I wrote an essay on Sonny Blues and I personally thought it was one of the worst essays I had turned in. The story was interesting to read, but that was all I was interested in doing- reading it without having to prove that I understood what I read.                                     

One of my favorite things that I read this year was Home, and having the opportunity to see Toni Morrison and hear her speak was a great experience. People get excited about going to concerts and seeing rappers or singers or TV celebrities, but I get excited about seeing authors. I remember being disappointed that day because when she was done speaking, they gave people the opportunity to ask questions. I stood in line waiting to speak into the microphone and tell her that I was a writer myself, and ask if she had any advice to give me, but before I could get to the front we were told that it was time for the discussion to end.

Overall, I genuinely enjoyed my life in AP. I enjoyed meeting Ethelbert Miller and Al Young. I enjoyed seeing Equivocation; having the visits from Enrico and Becca and being able to tell people I worked with them at my job at one of the greatest theatres in the country- Arena Stage.  I liked being in the class and the people I formed or improved friendships with, even if my friendliness with some of the people got me yelled at every now and then. I doubt I will ever forget the experiences I had in AP Lit.

If you would like more information about the 2012 Gala Essay Contest, please e-mail wins@penfaulkner.org.