Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Texas high school student with dyslexia wins national essay contest writing about her struggle to learn to read

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

FORT WORTH -- When McKenzie Hightower (pictured) learned that her essay had won a national writing award, she wrote a jubilant note to her teacher that wrapped up her thoughts succinctly.

"omg.omg.omg.omg," Hightower's e-mail read, short for "oh my gosh."

But don't mistake the informality for a stunted vocabulary. Hightower's ability for expressive composition is earning her accolades. Her evocative account of growing up with dyslexia won a gold medal in the annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition.

In "Starting from Behind: A Stori of Dislexsia," Hightower recalls struggling to learn to read during her elementary school years, losing hope that she would ever catch on.

She describes a frustrating attempt to read the word "the" while practicing with her mother one day, repeating the phonetic sounds of each letter, but initially unable to put them together.

"No matter how many times I did this, though, the letters remained just that: letters," Hightower wrote in her essay. "This was impossible! What was the point of this anyway? The black letters seemed to jump off the page and slowly strangle me. As I tried to breathe they whispered in my ear 'Teh-eh-hu.'"

By the end of the essay, she had made the connection. And as she worked to strengthen her reading skills, she found she liked to write, first in class assignments, then on her own, she said.

Now a sophomore at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Hightower writes each evening after soccer practice and homework, churning out poems, screenplays and fiction pieces. She contributes to the campus literary magazine and other publications and has taken every writing class, said Lucas Jacob, Trinity Valley's upper-school writing specialist.

"She just simply writes tirelessly," Jacob said. "She is infinitely more persistent, focused and dedicated than most people are at anything. She just doesn't stop."

Her piece on dyslexia, first written in 2008 and revised four times, won the top gold key award at the regional level before advancing to win the national contest. Previous winners include Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Robert Redford and Andy Warhol.

More than 10,000 students entered the national competition, and among the 1,300 gold- and silver-medal winners are teens from Marcus High in Flower Mound and one from Highland Park High in Dallas, officials said.

In June, the Hightower family and Jacob will travel to New York for a Carnegie Hall ceremony, where winners accept their medals.

The awards, launched in 1923, are administered by The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, a New York-based nonprofit organization. The honors recognize students from America and Canada in grades seven through 12 in writing and visual arts such as photography and sculpture.