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Schuster Prize Inspires La Follette Writers in Third Year

By Scott Girard | The Cap Times

In its third year, the Schuster Prize writing contest is inspiring young writers at La Follette High School.

The contest began in 2017 through funding from local author and LHS alumnus David Benjamin, whose sister Peg and friend Bob Schuster both died in 2016. Peg left behind some money to fund some sort of project, and Schuster’s wife offered an annual contribution as well once Benjamin had the idea for the contest. Both of them were also LHS graduates, and Schuster had launched an unofficial literary magazine at LHS in 1964.

“This is something that I wanted to foster and doing it at my alma mater seemed like a logical thing to do,” Benjamin said in an interview this week.

The prize offers a financial award to a first-, second- and third-place winner, a “best line” recipient and recognition for honorable mentions. The theme asked of those submitting to the contest changes each year, and it’s open to juniors and seniors at La Follette.

This year, the theme was “Persistence.” Kiera O’Higgins won first place, Rauan Pritchard took second and Natalie McDonald took third.

O’Higgins’ essay, titled “Persist, They Said,” covers her experience homeschooling and struggling with depression and self-esteem, which offered a mix of something unique and other themes that were more “universal,” she wrote in an email.

“Because of this I think my topic holds intrigue while being relatable to my audience,” the incoming senior wrote.

She wrote to the Cap Times that she’s “always loved reading, and naturally that grew into an appreciation for writing.”

“It means a lot to me to be recognized for my writing because in a way it validates my dream of writing as a career,” she wrote. “Words from parents and teachers only mean so much, but winning this prize feels much more important and official, and the title will be a great stepping stone for my future in college and beyond.”

Kiera O'Higgins won the first-place award in the 2020 Schuster Prize writing contest.

Creative writing teacher Andrew McCuaig, one of the judges of the contest, wrote in an email that he was “very moved and humbled” by the students’ stories this year, which covered serious topics like racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, suicide, being undocumented and having OCD or depression.

While he’s glad the winners get a scholarship — noting that the $5,000 first prize “buys a lot of textbooks” — he wrote that the writing itself is especially important.

“The prize promotes writing as a very serious endeavor,” he wrote. “I think in years to come, when someone says they were a Schuster Prize winner at La Follette, people will say, ‘You were? Really? Wow.’”

Pritchard's essay, "Overcame," focused on a character named Donald Carter who is on a journey to save his daughter from suicide.

He wrote in an email that he "really wanted to make my entry something meaningful to me and hopefully to others." He said when he received the email that he had placed second, he "ran to my parents and told them" and was in "shock and disbelief."

"Writing is very important to me because it lets me share my ideas and thoughts without having to verbalize them," he wrote. "Writing is my own little journal. It's a never-ending realm that only I can change. Everything happens in the writer's eye."

McDonald, who submitted an essay titled “My Grandfather’s Journey,” wrote in an email that she wanted to highlight the challenges her grandfather has faced amid a “very successful” life.

“He came from another country and had a lot of intersectionality growing up from being an immigrant, black, and an only child,” McDonald wrote.

Benjamin said the opportunity to inspire writing in youth “sort of vindicates what I’ve been doing all my life,” and ensures that at least some people will “continue to value the importance of telling stories.” Noting that many of this year’s entries were about serious topics, he said the essays seem to serve as “sort of catharsis” in a challenging time, but whatever their purpose, the students are developing a talent that will help them for the rest of their lives.

“I know most of these kids who compete in the Schuster Prize are not going to become writers,” he said, adding, “They are probably wise not to,” with a laugh. “But they are developing a skill that will serve them well in virtually everything they do.”

Meeting with the students, which this year he did at their homes to award the prizes rather than through the traditional ceremony, gives him hope for the future.

“Receiving their thanks in person was really satisfying,” Benjamin said. “It gave me a sense that, no matter how hard things are, we have this group of kids who have all the potential in the world to make things better if people will pay attention.”

This article was originally published by the Cap Times on June 14, 2020. To view the full story on their website, please visit:

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