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For student essayists, U.S. promise shines bright as ever

Each year about this time, Jim Hanley, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1833 in Medford, drops by the office bearing gifts.

They are in the form of essays written by local students competing in the VFW's annual national essay-writing contest. I figure it is an honor to be asked to judge them.

The national winner of this endeavor, open to grades six through eight, wins a $5,000 college scholarship. It's a nice sum to drop into the college piggy bank.

Incidentally, Jim, 89, who served as ball turret gunner in a B-17 bomber during World War II, represents well what Tom Brokaw rightfully dubbed the Greatest Generation. I always look forward to hearing from him.

What's more, the students' thoughts invariably remind me that things aren't as bad as we adults sometimes fear.

This year's theme was particularly interesting: What would you tell our nation's founding fathers?

As one growing longer of tooth who is sometimes stalked by the beast of cynicism, I would probably tell the founders about the horrific mass murders that continue to stain our country with the blood of innocents. I would seek their advice about what to do about it.

I would also tell Messrs. Adams, Jefferson, Washington, et al, about the present political kindergarten that is Washington, D.C. Again, I would want their guidance on how to stop the never-ending, backbiting bickering across the aisle.

But the students did not focus on the bleak. They accentuated the positive, writing refreshingly about the legacy of those who started this democratic experiment that has changed the world.

The six essays I was given were the cream of the crop from 423 participating middle-school students in our area, Jim reports. I don't know the names of the six students or which schools they attend. Each essay was identified only by a number.

The students were restricted to no more than 400 words. The judging criteria included theme knowledge, development and clarity of ideas.

"If I could go back in time and meet our founding fathers, I would tell them they've shaped the best country in the world," wrote one student.

The essay noted that Congress passed the 13th Amendment in 1865 to abolish slavery.

"In 1963, a man named Martin Luther King Jr. gave a famous speech," the student continued. "The 'I Have a Dream' speech showed people racism is wrong."

King helped bring about justice without the use of violence, the writer wisely noted.

This young essayist also introduced a few technical things that would have boggled the minds of the founders.

"Steve Jobs created everything: iPhone, iPad and iPod," the student wrote. "We have invented GPS, Skype, Gmail and blogging!"

As you would expect, each student thanked the originators of our nation for their efforts to protect our various freedoms. One even kindly mentioned the freedom of the press.

"I am happy to announce that their country is alive and well and in many ways better than ever," wrote one who also went on to explain some of the technological changes made since 1776.

"About a hundred years ago, we went through an industrial revolution where steel replaced products made of wood," the scholar wrote. "Mechanical vehicles called 'cars' and 'trucks' replaced horses for transportation. Recently, we went through another revolution in technology where we use electronics to transmit most messages and information."

That writer noted these advancements would have impressed even the inventive mind of Ben Franklin.

"If I could talk with these men, I might speak to Washington about his role as the first president of the United States, for setting the standard that a president is one who serves the people," wrote another. "To Adams, I could talk about how his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, which ultimately helped gain our independence from English rule."

Still another wrote that he or she would inform the first fathers that, thanks to the foundation they laid, women have equal rights, there are no slaves and countless races dwell peacefully together in our country.

"As a 13-year-old I feel privileged to live in this country that is like no other," one concluded.

These young writers are absolutely right. Warts and all, this country of ours is still a great place to live.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.