America as a haven where freedom and equal opportunity are constitutionally protected, and the nation’s history of expanding citizens’ rights to groups excluded in the days of its founding — women, African slaves — were recurring themes for writers who excelled in the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ student essay contests.
“Mariska Jacobs was my great grandmother. She sailed from Hungary to the United States of America in 1936, running from the terror of the Nazi regime,” Miranda Rosenblum wrote. “I can see her now: her petite frame held tall and proud, her eyes trained towards the sea, waiting for her new life to begin. As the statue of Liberty appears … an unexpected tear materializes in the corner of her mahogany eyes. This tear is not of sorrow, however; this tear is rooted in relief, security, opportunity, excitement, and, most of all, the promise of freedom.
“Mariska came to the United States to embrace that promise of freedom, the responsibility of democracy, and the security of justice that our Constitution guarantees. To Mariska, the U.S. meant that she could pursue her ideal of happiness: a big, healthy family, cocooned in economic prosperity and religious freedom…
“Just as the Constitution paved a path to Mariska’s version of happiness, it gives me a chance to do the same, even though my pursuit is very different. The U.S. Constitution, and its amendments, give me the right to an equal education and equal treatment in the workplace, a prize not shared by girls in other countries. The ability to fulfill our unique destiny as individuals is what allows us to as a country achieve the promise of the Constitution.”
Sarah Baer, who joins Miranda as a co-winner of this year’s Voice of Democracy contest, sponsored by the VFW, took a less personal approach to this year’s theme: “Is our Constitution still relevant?”
“In the words of Lyndon B. Johnson,” she began, “ ‘It is the genius of our Constitution that under its shelter of enduring institutions and rooted principles there is ample room for the rich fertility of American political invention.’ As America continues to grow and evolve as a nation, the Constitution simultaneously anchors us to our core democratic principles, and allows us to adapt, striding powerfully into the future…
“The framers of the Constitution faced a challenge to create a document that would not only help a fledgling nature to mature, but also build a foundation that would one day support and international superpower. Since the fateful days of the 1780s, America has expanded across a continent, become home to millions of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, and exercised its influence in far-flung corners of the world. Through it all, the Constitution has been our guide, allowing us to become a global nation while retaining distinctly American democratic values.”
Each of the two RHS juniors will get $75, sharing the $150 prize for the two-page essays which they not only wrote, but presented orally, submitting audio tapes to the VFW.
“We’ve always had one winner at the high school,” said the VFW’s Walter Goodman, who runs the Voice of Democracy contest at Ridgefield High School each year. Not this year. “They were both so good,” he said.
Three Ridgefield winners were chosen in the VFW’s related Patriot’s Pen competition for middle school students: Lauren Chakraborty and Maya Christianson, both eighth graders at Scotts Ridge Middle School, and Liam Galloway, a seventh grader at East Ridge Middle School.
The Patriot’s Pen competitors are judged on written essays — not tapes of them giving their essays as speeches, like the high school students. They’ll get $50 prizes. This year’s topic was: “What I would tell America’s founding fathers.”
“I am proud to be in your presence, and to be in the country you founded,” Liam Galloway wrote to the founders. “Thanks to you, America has emerged as the greatest country that mankind has ever seen. In our time many advances exceeded far beyond what was expected but we live in a new age now…
“One of the most important changes is one you may not agree with but is one that shows us that we, as a country, are all equal. Slavery, even though many of you had slaves, was one of the darkest stains on American history. Thankfully, you had the foresight to teach us through your documents that all men are created equal and we fought to ensure that right. After lots of fighting and murder there is now a time where all people are treated equal; this allows our country to grow and evolve.”
The expansion of citizens’ rights since the days of founding fathers was also a theme for Maya Christianson.
“Thank you for making America the incredible united nation it started as and still is,” she told the founders. “As you know, our country was founded on freedom; this, you helped accomplish. I am happy to say the country you have established has stayed united and has improved over the years…
“…You set our country based upon freedom for certain people. We now have freedom for all people whether they are men, women or one of diverse races. For instance, not only do men vote, but women have achieved the right as well in the year 1920. Additionally, all races have the same rights. Although African Americans were discriminated against in the past, now racism is considered an offense and an insult. Our country has taken many steps away from discrimination over the years, resulting in peace and compromise throughout our nation…”
Lauren Chakraborty touched the same themes.
“The founding fathers laid the strong foundation upon which our nation was built. Over time, however, pieces of that foundation have grown old and begun to rot through,” she wrote. “It is to the credit of our country that even today we continue to replace those decaying parts with the sturdy concrete of freedom…
“Slavery was a major industry in our founding fathers’ day, and even when it was abolished citizens were still separated into two classes based on their race. Today, no judgments are made because of one’s skin color. We look upon slavery with disgust and regret. Today, Barack Obama is the first African-American president, a perfect example of our nation’s steps forward.
“Our country’s progress does not end there. Not long ago, women were politically disregarded and denied many opportunities. Women now possess all the rights that are granted to men. The founding fathers would probably disagree with our decisions to grant equality to everyone. Nonetheless, it is the right thing for our country — an essential building block used to replace some of that rotting foundation originally laid down.”