Everything and Nothing: The Heartbreak File

Aïda Rogers

Posted Oct. 20, 2021

By Aïda Rogers

The deadline for submissions to the annual South Carolina High School Writing Contest has closed, which means my Heartbreak File has opened. In it are assorted entries the contest has received since it started in 2013, with Pat Conroy as judge. He wouldn’t have seen the contents of this file, but after his year on Daufuskie Island, he wouldn’t have been surprised.

Here’s a bit from “Heartbreaker #1,” written after the floods of 2015: “…people had to stay in their homes, make sure they had everything they need so they wouldn’t have to come outside, and make sure they got home before all this starts to happen round midnight tell dark time. When everyone wakes up early in the morning, all they seen was water …”

This was written by a high school senior in this state, responding to our annual prompt, which is “How can we improve South Carolina?”

That year, we also got this: “If South Carolina would sedulous a road side clean up then we wouldn’t only be helping our street look better but we would also be saving animals.” This student advocated recycling. “We could get bens and put them up at local businesses …”

The Heartbreak File thickens every year. Aside from students who aren’t writing proficiently – and somehow, those are the most heartbreaking to me – we have others reporting heartbreaks of many other kinds.

“As a 17-year-old girl, you would expect me not to know a thing about ‘drugs,’” one marvelous young writer wrote. “Truth is, before I could barely read a chapter book I knew how to cut a pill seven different ways … I should not have known the going rate for one OxyContin pill was eight dollars, nor how you could crush this into a fine powder and snort it.” For this student, vanquishing the stigma of addiction was the best way to improve South Carolina. (In 2020, there were 1,730 drug overdose deaths in South Carolina, a 50 percent increase from 2019, according to the CDC.)

Several young women reported sexual abuse. “I finally spoke about it, at the age of twelve, to my friends one night at a sleepover, and remember them asking if I was being molested. I did not even know what the term ‘molestation’ meant,” she wrote.

To improve South Carolina, students and teachers need more education about sexual abuse than what she got in second grade, when she and her classmates received coloring books that showed an older man on a beach asking to touch a little girl “in her bathing suit area.” They were taught to “say no and find a trusting adult.”

As she put it, “I did not link the coloring book to my situation. I cannot recall a single lesson or guest speaker talking to us about signs, what the boundaries are, and where to go for help. If I had been more aware of the definition of child abuse, then I would have been able to understand the situation more clearly.”

You can read the edited submissions to the contest in volumes 1-6 of “Writing South Carolina: Selections of the High School Writing Contest.” Publisher is the South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina, which presents the contest with partners that include the Pat Conroy Literary Center, South Carolina State Library, South Carolina Academy of Authors, South Carolina Writers Association, and Thad Westbrook, a University of South Carolina trustee. SCHC Dean Steven Lynn, an English professor and Greer native, started the contest to give students a competition that requires mental muscle. Our judges have been a Who’s Who of South Carolina writers – among them poets Nikky Finney and Marjory Wentworth, novelists Mary Alice Monroe and Pam Durban, and historian Walter Edgar.    

As the contest coordinator, I’ve read every submission we’ve gotten – about 1,400 of them – and edited, with my students and Dean Lynn, the 296 pieces published so far. I make sure we have signed parental or guardian permission to publish those younger than 18, and we get legal advice when necessary. Nine years in I know to expect work that is brilliant, average, earnest, funny and shocking. There are always heartbreakers.

And there are heart-warmers. One student, an abuse survivor who graduated from Saluda High, told me the contest gave her the confidence to study English education at Lander and the University of Cambridge, and to accept an internship at Duke. Now Sarah Williams-Shealy teaches at Wagener-Salley High, where she won “First-Year Teacher of the Year.”

One of Williams-Shealy’s classmates wrote about how hard it was to act as a Spanish-speaking translator for police officers investigating his scared, vulnerable neighbors. Unable to afford college in South Carolina because he and his Mexican parents are undocumented – this state mandates that Dreamers pay out-of-state tuition for in-state schools – Nicolas Fernandez Rodriquez left. He graduated this year with a degree in statistics from the University of Illinois Chicago. His GPA was 3.86. Chicago is home to him now: While working as a data analyst he’ll start a master’s program and try to bring his family there.   

The contest offers an interesting way to learn the state. Thanks to an energetic teacher at Gaffney High who always has her students enter, I learned the band was marching in old uniforms from another school while the football team got a brand-new stadium. From the Lowcountry comes panic about the environment. “I am afraid. Terrified,” confessed Samuel Rosenberg of Charleston. “I write this today as Hurricane Michael slams South Carolina, and I have my fifth hurricane day this school year.”

Two young Black men described obvious racism. “Walking on the street downtown to my job at the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office, I have witnessed White Americans go to the other side of the street so they wouldn’t have to walk by me,” wrote Justice Hill, a Columbian who aims for law school.

“Regardless of how many community service hours I complete, how high my GPA is, or how my pants sit on my waist, there is always something that will cause a cop to stop me for being a Black man owning a Tahoe with rims or for a White woman to obviously move away because somewhere in the back of their minds, no matter who I am as a person, they will only ever see me as a color,” wrote KhaFee Walker-Lewis of St. Stephen, who joined the Army. 

Of the many submissions about our roads, Devin Leigh’s was the most pressing. He described how his mother, an EMT in Horry County, struggles to insert IVs into patients on roads riddled with potholes. “Imagine the lives that would be saved – and not just in the back of an ambulance – if South Carolina had higher quality infrastructure,” he wrote. 

Our finalists reflect our population. Several are of Asian, Muslim, and Latino heritage, and some are mixed. We’ve had various genders and sexualities and a foster child. They abhor South Carolina’s inequitable public education system, our “Corridor of Shame,” and they want good teachers to be paid more. Mental health is a big issue with them, and so is comprehensive, comprehensible sex education – they’re crying out for it. They deplore the litter on our roads and the hypocrisy of the South. They call out older generations who use disrespectful language about minorities.

Soon I will read the 94 submissions we got this year – we think that’s a good number considering the pandemic – and I’ll see what the trendy topic is for 2021. One thing will be clear. As the author of Heartbreaker #1 began, “In South Carolina there are many problems.” That student got it heartbreakingly right.  

Volumes 1-6 of Writing South Carolina: Selections of the High School Writing Contest are available on Amazon. Volume 7 is in production. Volume 8 can be accessed here

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

This content is being shared through the S.C. News Exchange and is for use in SCPA member publications. Please use appropriate bylines and credit lines.