This guest post (the second of two parts) is written by student Rahul Malayappan, a finalist in the 2016 Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize Contest. His teacher, Tom Porcelli, wrote the first part.
I was rather perplexed one February morning to walk into Mr. Porcelli’s AP Language class and see the projected image of the Lincoln Memorial on the whiteboard in the front of the classroom. On the board was a list of deadlines: dates for a prewrite, rough draft, final edit, and so on. It was only when the video played that I realized what the task at hand was: Porcelli was making us write an essay for a contest run by The Atlantic magazine and the College Board, and the goal of the contest was to analyze a piece of art and its impact. I was never interested in deeply analyzing art, much less in criticizing it and less still in learning its history, and so I was initially unenthusiastic about the contest. But it was mandatory, and I figured that I might as well submit an essay to the contest if I had to do it for a grade.
An admirer of mathematics, I gravitated toward M.C. Escher as the artist of choice because of the geometric beauty of his works and the algebraic precision of his illusions. The piece I chose was Waterfall, which I found unique because of its dynamism; the flow of the water through the lithograph departed from the static nature of other Escher works. Yet I was still uninterested, and I trudged apathetically through the process, throwing together prewrites and drafts at the last moment. My heart was not in the paper—I took it in a direction in which I was forced to grasp at straws, and most of the paper was fluff without substance.
It was during the second stage of the peer revision process that I gave the paper to my friend Sarah for review. Her evaluation was scathing; she said that the paper made her want to go to sleep and that it sounded stilted and clunky. So I scrapped the paper in its entirety and started again from scratch. This time I changed my direction entirely, focusing pointedly and viscerally on the feelings that Waterfall inspired in me—feelings of discomfort and perplexity aroused by the illusory and enigmatic nature of the work. I eschewed a structured approach to the writing and proceeded haphazardly, stitching together fragments and sentences and paragraphs into a coherent essay. I managed to finish and submit the essay to Porcelli in the nick of time, and I was more satisfied with my final product. I opted to send my essay in for the competition as well, although I did not expect to win anything in a pool of entries numbering in the thousands, from across the world. In all honesty, I forgot about the competition shortly afterward.
It was during a late-night pre-world-championship robotics meeting, as I was mired in frustration at a persistent programming problem, that I heard the characteristically short buzz of an email come from my phone. I picked it up. Seeing the subject line of “The Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize,” and at that point well acquainted with the unctuous language of college rejection letters, I half-expected a message that, as much as the judges thoroughly enjoyed reading my essay, they could not choose me as the winner. I was, naturally, surprised to learn that not only was I one of the competition’s three finalists, but I would have an opportunity to work with a senior editor from The Atlantic the following week. I jumped out of my seat and excitedly informed the people around me of what happened but promptly went back to programming. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have reason to celebrate unless I was named the sole victor of the contest.
I worked with the editor, Ms. Ann Hulbert, early the next week, and the experience was incredibly enlightening. She paid greater attention to minutiae than I ever have, from the very specifics of word choice to the construction of sentences. Yet she also managed to incorporate large-scale ideas, and, through all of this, kept my voice and original intent intact. I never realized beforehand how important revision was; to me, previously, it was simply a way of catching silly mistakes in punctuation and syntax. I submitted my paper again after returning from the VEX world championship, and hoped for the best.
I then received an email with even better news than before: all three finalists would be flown to Washington, DC, and would receive at least $2,500 in cash. Details trickled in—we would be staying at the wonderful St. Gregory hotel, seeing artwork at the National Gallery of Art and National Museum of Women in the Arts, and eating at the famous Old Ebbitt Grill. The itinerary was packed with engaging activities for the two days we were in DC.
The trip lived up to my expectations. The other finalists were friendly and personable, and the Atlantic and College Board staff were genial as well. In the morning, we got to tour the Atlantic offices and meet the faces behind the correspondence leading up to the event. We learned that the reason behind our visits to the museums was to see works from each of our respective artists; original Escher and Raphael drawings were housed in the National Gallery, while the National Museum of Women in the Arts had a Kahlo painting. As someone rather removed from the world of art, I found the experience of viewing art in museums to be rather fascinating, especially with the outside input of the guide. And we were always accommodated luxuriously, making the trip thoroughly enjoyable.
I learned before the awards ceremony that I was a semifinalist and not the winner. My involvement at the summit was little—I simply had to walk across the stage with Porcelli. Even though I didn’t win, the whole experience was marvelous, and it truly changed my view of the writing process. It taught me about how meticulous and fluid the writing process can be, subject to the radical changes and excisions of edits and revisions.
Rahul Malayappan is a senior and the valedictorian of his graduating class at Danbury High School in Danbury, Connecticut. He will be attending the University of California at Berkeley in the fall with interests in physics, computer science, electrical engineering and mathematics.