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From left, Fernando Cisneros (first place), Shaelynn Sublett (second place), Olivia Ilsley (third place) and Ally Peterson (honorable mention) are the winners of the first Napa Valley Writers student writing contest. 

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Editor’s note: Last fall, author Lenore Hirsch contacted the Register with a question: If the Napa Valley Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club, held a student writing contest, would we be interested in publishing the winning essays?

The answer was an easy one: yes.

The Napa Valley Writers went on to hold the first student writing contest at Vintage High School.

Hirsch said, “Teachers Peter Oppenheim and Jennifer LaMonte worked with the club in establishing a prompt, ‘Transitions,’ formulating evaluation measures, and encouraging students to submit their work.

“Six students were honored at the Jan. 10 meeting of Napa Valley Writers. Honorable mention went to Paola Machuca, Dariya Stuter and Ally Peterson. First- second- and third-place winners were Fernando Cisneros, Shaelynn Sublett and Olivia Ilsley.”

The students won cash prizes of $100, $75, and $50. The club hopes to make this contest an annual event and to expand to other schools in the future.

And the Register is quite proud to be able to publish the winning essays of Fernando Cisneros, a junior, and Shaelynn Sublett, a sophomore.

First Place: ‘Trust’ by Fernando Cisneros

In my house, trust was a scarce gem. As the youngest son of two first-generation Mexican immigrants, I was taught to trust few outside of my household. My early years were defined by the fears and anxiety that plagued my parents’ integration into American society. In my house, there was no time to socialize with the Caucasian boys that were generous enough to invite me to sleepovers or playdates. In my house, my safety was guaranteed by a mother denied of her education—forced to support her four siblings in corn fields—and a traumatized, hyper-vigilant Marine Corp veteran haunted by the carnage of his tour in Iraq.

As the youngest child of 2, I was subjected to many things I couldn’t comprehend. During my early years, I couldn’t understand why my father would berate my brother and me for leaving our back door unlocked, failing to leave home precisely at 7 every morning, or failing to arrive at school functions 30 minutes prior to the doors opening. I couldn’t understand why my father would break into tantrums at the instant I questioned why he diligently holstered his Smith and Wesson pocket knife every instance he left my house. Moments when my father became emotionally detached made growing up especially difficult. I viewed my father as a heroic figure capable of decimating any man, animal, or monster I could have fathomed, yet I lacked a considerable amount of emotional guidance. It was a blessing to spend time with my father. For every moment we spent together was a opportunity to peel back the layers that encapsulated his apprehensive psyche frayed by corpses ridden with shrapnel and families torn apart by the hail of rifle fire.

I spent most of my time surrounded by my mother, Rosa, and older brother, Andres, working hard on school work, struggling to grasp new concepts. English was a true predicament. Growing up, my mother had the ability to communicate in English, but was never able to aid me in learning a language that was foreign to my family. Nevertheless, I trudged on with the help of my brother, Andres. Andres was the closest thing I had to a mentor while I was young. My brother was essentially the only person I communicated with on a daily basis. He was the one that held me while I cried on my elementary school playground wishing to see my mom, or whilst I cried at night asking why I strained myself to succeed in school while others couldn’t care more about their grades. My brother taught me that my parents’ fears didn’t exist when he was around; for my brother believed that life was more than secluding one’s self to the confines of their home. He strove to befriend anyone regardless of appearance. He sat down to listen, to appreciate another’s story. He was the reason I strove for success. He was the reason I strove to become an educated student—to achieve a 4.0 GPA —and challenge myself to become eloquent, well-read, and willing to outshine my contemporaries—regardless of the workload.

When I began my high school career at Vintage High, I soon found myself thrown into a world that extended further than my front door alone while Andres began his studies at UCSD. I was often perplexed when the upperclassmen of my cross country team half-heartedly perpetrated an idea of a close-knit cross-country family. I questioned how I, a timid Mexican freshman, could have identified with white upperclassmen that would offer no more than an occasional nod in the hallway. I simply couldn’t connect the dots to feel as if I was truly a member of a Family. I simply couldn’t. There was no one willing to understand me. To understand my essence—rather than perceive myself as a smart brownie.

I carried this sentiment of alienation until the summer of my sophomore year. I knew I was to be sent to Colorado by Summer Search—a program for minorities aspiring to be first-generation college students hoping to prove the statistics wrong— near the end of July. I was ecstatic to experience the physical challenges of the Colorado mountains, the silence of the lush, rolling summits 12,000 feet above sea level, and the silent refuge from the absurdity of suburban life. However, the Colorado experience was anything but silent. I was surrounded by a crowd of other minorities from across the nation. I was frustrated with everyone initially. I was annoyed by the fact most couldn’t hike more than three miles through the dense floral Colorado trails without taking a nice mini siesta. I felt enraged, eager to attack the mountains like the next day would be my last.

Nevertheless, the downtime between hikes surrounded by personalities like Jedidiah, Justeven, Daijon, Maria, Anthony, Kelsey, Stephanie, and many others taught me to seek refuge not in silence, but rather in the trust and understanding that held the group together. A sublime understanding that I never experienced from previous friendships. The group became one small family of fourteen young adults. We shared personal stories, ambitions, tribulations, and even relationship advice. During my time in Colorado, I was no longer controlled by my father’s PTSD related anxiety, nor my mother’s reluctance to open herself to new and different people. Instead, I found consolidation in sharing my experiences with other teens from all around the United States. For once, I broke free from the cocoon that confined the thoughtfulness and the beauty I wanted to express. We all felt at home for we were all eager to prove the statistics wrong, to be the first in our families to go to college, to be the kids that make it off the block, to be able to bring new ideas back to our roots.

So that’s where I stand. Even after I left the damp and cold summits of Colorado, I’m content with knowing my new family resides in Boston, Philadelphia, and the Bronx. A family that I can trust. The laughter and tears we shared during the cold nights at Deer Hill still hold a dear place in my heart. For my true family is built upon relationships established on genuine trust and admiration, a trust built upon love between family and friends.

Second Place: Transition of 1979 by Shaelynn Sublett

In 1979 my grandmother found herself in a very difficult situation. She was stuck and didn’t know what to do with her life. Rather than accept a bad situation, she managed to turn this around and changed her life. I interviewed her to find out more about the events that went on before, during, and after this important transition.

After graduating college with a liberal arts degree, she wanted to find out what jobs were available in the job market. So, she took a job at an employment agency that paid $600 a month. After working there for two years, nothing really interested her. But this experience was valuable because she learned two very important things: one was that “it was painfully obvious that women were being paid far less than men to do equal jobs”; and two, “that it was critical to learn multiple job skills to make yourself marketable and valuable to an employer.”

No job listing that she saw struck her fancy, so she decided to apply for a job at a government agency where they offered equal pay for equal work. In 1969 she took a job offer at a California state agency that helped people with disabilities. Her starting salary paid $676 a month. Initially all was well; she learned about medical conditions, and was allowed to adjudicate lien claims to try to recover state payments when workers compensation suits were settled.

“I would go in front of a judge to try and get money back that we paid, when really someone else was supposed to pay the injured worker.” But after 10 years she had had enough. “The manager I was assigned to at that time was so dreadful that I began to have psychosomatic migraine headaches at the thought of having to go to work. The manager was ignorant, despotic, and cruel to people. I felt imprisoned in this job. For example, when a new stack of forms came in one day, I asked him if he would like me to put the new forms on the bottom of the pile to use the old forms up first.

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“’No!’ he said emphatically. ‘Put the old forms on top!’”

“Duh! I couldn’t believe my own ears! As another example, he forced me to fire a man who was clearly an alcoholic and needed medical attention. The poor soul used to put vodka in buttermilk to drink on his breaks so his breath was not detectable. That was the final straw.”

“1979 was a pivotal year for me. This was the time that changed me. I came to the conclusion that I could no longer work for the State.” Her job at the state would not allow her to take time off to interview for other jobs. The only option was to quit, so she did. However there was a big problem. She had invested in two houses using all of her savings. If she quit she would be dead broke. Plus she needed a car. But she quit, knowing it was the right thing to do.

For four months she looked for a job. Some places wouldn’t interview her because of her previous job at the State. They said that she didn’t have the skills to transfer to private sector employment. Some she interviewed with ended up hiring internally, which had been their intention all along. Some interviewers she never heard from again. ”It was a tremendously depressing process. I bless the friends and family who offered emotional support and caring during this time. You need networks to cope in times of crisis.”

Finally, she was offered a job in the contracts department of a mid-size company for $1600 a month. “This was a place where I could learn private industry skills.” In fact, within six months she was offered a position of huge responsibility with a high salary to go with it. It was the largest salary increase ever offered to an employee in the history of that firm and had to be approved by the president of the company. She went from being a contract analyst to managing an entire division of 50 people with an annual budget of $45 million. Most of the employees were PhDs who were brilliant in their fields, but required a lot of hand-holding.

From then on her career skyrocketed. ”I read every publication that went out of our division so that I could understand exactly what our products were. I learned every job skill that was offered to me through training sessions. I was fanatic about bringing in projects on time and within budget that made us a model division within the firm. I made myself indispensable to my bosses. I was in before they got there and never left until they had gone. They rewarded me with any job I wanted to do and international travel.”

She was able to write her own job description. She worked for this research firm for 21 years. At the end of her career she was making six figures, which enabled her to retire early. ”It was a fabulous career and experience.” Now she likes to travel around the world. She’s been almost everywhere, including places you might not have heard of. She does volunteer missions in impoverished countries and raises funds for disaster relief.

“When I think back to 1979 and the terrible job and disappointing life I had that year, I am grateful that I took the risk to dump it all and look for a better future. It was not easy. But learning to take the risk was critical. When times got tough in my future, I had confidence that I could overcome obstacles since I knew I had done it before.”

That year she learned many important things including: ”Life is a process, not an event. When things go badly, it’s probably just temporary. Work hard. You are not working for someone else. You are ALWAYS working for yourself. TAKE RISKS. Especially women. Never settle for a poor circumstance. Do something about it. Always have Plan B based on fundamental planning and preparation.”