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Listen to a Life Contest
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Listen to a Life Contest Grand Prize Winner

Congratulations to
Jake Taylor, 13, and his grandfather Jack Taylor, 78

Listen to a Life Essay Contest Grand Prize Winner

Jake is a grade 7 student at Carolina Friends School in Durham, NC. His teacher, Lisa Joyner, believes that it's especially important for middle school students to connect meaningfully with elders. There are many real-life lessons and insights students can gain. She had her entire class interview local seniors, focussing on what life was like when the seniors were the age of the students. Jake was very excited about interviewing his grandfather, and even made a movie as part of his class project. He read his essay in front of his proud grandfather at the school's Grandparents Day. Lisa describes Jake as an "amazing writer" who might just have a career as an author ahead of him. He rewrote his winning essay many, many times over a week, and worked hard to get it to 300 words. "This contest is a great editing lesson," comments Lisa. Jake is a creative, determined student, who also reads a lot and loves playing soccer.

Once upon a time, movie theaters were creaky, sweltering mausoleums of magic. They were the quintessential escape from the humdrum day-to-day routine.

Theaters were the only place a small-town Indiana boy like Jack could pilot a fighter plane, solve a murder mystery, or raise a faun, all from the comfort of a bright orange, thick plastic chair. He sat there, riveted to the screen, one hand clutching an Almond Joy, the other clutching the armrest, knuckles white with anticipation, a wicked grin spreading across his face like wildfire. Jack never felt more alive than when the projector whirred to life, flitting image after image across the jumbo-sized screen. He was there, every Saturday, without fail.

Those precious Saturday afternoon experiences shaped the person Jack Taylor became. Movies taught Jack to dream, taught him to keep hope – despite bleak surroundings, because to Jack, "It's not about regretting the past, or just planning what to do in the future, but appreciating the moment you're in." Movies were his windows to the world, and theaters the only place Jack felt fully present.

When I spend time with my grandfather, I see flashes of that small-town Indiana boy electrify Jack's deep blue eyes. No matter how the theater changes, it will always be a sanctuary for our family.

Today, movie theaters are modern, air-conditioned halls of memory. They are the only place where a 78-year-old man can be a small-town Indiana boy, all from the comfort of a plush, red velvet chair. He is there, reclining, riveted to the screen, one hand clutching his wife's, the other clutching mine, the same unmistakable grin unfurling across his face.

When the world around me appears cruel and unforgiving, I will remember my grandfather's words: "Cherish your family, cherish your friends – but above all, cherish now."

Listen to a Life Contest Legacy Award Winners

Kelly Jarboe, 17, and grandmother Bobbye Dennis, 67, Texas

"Time moves in one direction, memory in another."

These words, penned by novelist William Gibson, explain the paradox with which we live. While we continue to age and grow old, essentially moving forward in one direction, we constantly look back upon the past and reflect upon memories of times gone by, thus moving in the opposite direction. As we recall events in our lives, we discover ourselves fondly telling them to our loved ones. This is what happened when I interviewed my grandmother.

Long before "Cousins Camp" became a popular term, my grandmother, Bobbye Lynn Dennis, and her many cousins unknowingly participated in that special event. Living in small towns around West Texas, the cousins would gather at my grandmother's rural homestead. This is one of my grandmother's favorite memories because they were constantly playing in the farmyard, creating fantasy lands with any stick, stone, leaf, or bug they could find. Not only did these activities help to develop imagination, but they also promoted life skills. According to my grandmother, "Our outdoor play helped us to develop collaborating skills with each other. It encouraged group decision making and negotiation. After all, building a racecar from old plywood and discarded tractor parts took a lot of compromise."

It's important to tell others your memories. After you are gone, there may be pictures, journals and news clippings about you, but when you tell someone about your past experiences they come to life again and that person will also remember them.

I love hearing stories from my grandmother about her childhood. They allow me to connect with her on a deeper level. By listening to her stories, it shows my grandmother that I'm interested and care about her. Plus, our memories are then able to move in the same direction.

Kayla R. Hay, 12, and grandfather Mike Hay, 74, Alaska


This may sound wrong, but sometimes fire is like a game: you get there as fast as you can, and see how fast you can put it out. When the fire is over, the game is over. Then you have to pick the game up. You must wash the hoses, hang them in the tower to dry, wash down the trucks, fill them with diesel and water,…

My shoes glide over the gravel, Johnny not three paces behind me. The adrenaline rushes through our veins. Sirens wail, shouts echo, small rocks fly.

We reach the building. It's smoking. It's burning. It's on fire.

The world's a blur. A big, red blur. Red flames, red trucks, red faces. Red.

Johnny and I pull. We pull a ladder. We pull a hose. We pull ourselves together. The building is on fire.

We're up on a roof. We hope it's the right roof. We spray. Aimlessly. We can't reach the flames. They slyly escape. They won't be caught.

The sirens don't stop. They seem to never stop. Ever.

We're all ordering. We're all following. We're all praying.

More shouting. The chief shouts, firefighters shout, owners shout, bystanders shout. "Get down, get down!" We get down. We stand on the ground, spraying… watching. Watching a blur. A blur of falling boards, falling walls, falling hopes. We're all falling.

We stop shouting. Stop. Everything is silent; yet the sirens go on. Over and over in my head. Over and over. It's over.

This may sound wrong, but sometimes fire – like life – is like a game: either you win, or you don't. Grandpa Mike lost his first fire, but he had many victories in his three decade career.

Cole Ferguson, 14, and grandfather Norm Ferguson, 68, Florida

He has achieved a place in the Nova Scotia Hockey Hall of Fame and is well-known among hockey fanatics. He's traveled the continent playing for a variety of teams with renowned teammates and opponents. But not all of his life has come as naturally and easily as hockey.

As a young boy, Norm Ferguson grew up in the tiny town of Sydney, Nova Scotia, in Canada. In his late teens, Norm decided to "take the road less traveled" and head to Montreal where he was able to play junior hockey. This choice in life was very difficult for Norm since all his lifelong friends were staying in their hometown and following in their father's footsteps.

The couple of years Norm spent in the Junior League were exhausting. But in the end it all paid off because he became a professional hockey player in 1966.

In the season of 1968-1969, Norm broke the California Golden Seals' record for the most goals in a single season, and his record has lasted to this day with a total of 34 goals. After twelve years of playing on teams such as the California Golden Seals, the Edmonton Oilers, the New York Rangers, and many more, Norm retired and returned to his hometown and worked with a family business.

Norm, my grandfather, has taught me many life lessons. He often tells me, "It's not the hockey stick, it's the player," referring to the times when you don't score your goal. You become successful through hard work and not on what you already have. The things that have the sweetest success are always the ones with the bitter and tough journey.

Norm Ferguson has made a lasting impression on the history of hockey and many lives – including mine.

Antonia Scarlata, 17, and grandfather Manfred Rode, 79, Massachusetts

On November 10th, 1938, four-year-old Manfred Rode, my Opi, was walking past shops in Berlin with his nanny. They suddenly stopped in their tracks – there was shattered glass everywhere. He was quickly hurried onwards, later learning that this had been the morning after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.

The Germans were horrified, after which the Nazis reverted to secrecy. The public was aware of political adversaries of the National Socialist Movement being sent to "concentration camps," but what was done remained unknown.

Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and shovel the sidewalks in the winter. On one occasion, Opi observed a German local, Herr Legner, offering some tea and sandwiches to Jews shoveling outside of his shop. He was quickly approached and threatened by an SA officer. Herr Legner was later killed along with many Germans in the Deathmarch of Bruenn.

At the end of the war in 1945, the radio finally reported what we now call the Holocaust. Most denied it, but photos of the victims were posted all over town, shocking the Germans with the horrific truth.

After WW I, Germany was facing high unemployment, exploitation of the working class, organized crime, and the humiliating restrictions of German sovereignty by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler was a politician – his campaign obviously didn't propose the murder of millions of people. Initially seen as a saviour, he was elected. As soon as the public began to notice they'd given power to a ruthless criminal who disregarded the constitution, it was too late.

Today the world is blinded by hindsight bias. I've been called a Nazi my whole life. It is my dream that one day, Americans will let go of judgment, assumptions and ignorance to live with open, ever-changing perspectives. Germans and Nazis are not synonymous.

Karan Ishii, 15, and great-grandmother Hide Shibuya, 101, New York


Hide heard the sounds of airplanes. The buzzing sound of a thousand bees. It was a raid.

In the small Japanese town Hide once lived in, all the buildings were made of wood. This was the early 1940s. This was war. Her husband had been drafted and had been killed, leaving no one to fend for her and her two children.

On that night, her small village experienced the horror of war and the devastation that came with it. Still hearing the swarming colony of bees, bombs were released in such great numbers that it seemed as if it were raining bombs. The incendiary bombs were made specifically to destroy the homes of the Japanese. Once a bomb was dropped, sparks ignited everything around it in a raging fire. There was, and still isn't, anyway to stop it. The fire consumed everything around it, having no mercy.

Hide and her 12-year-old son were separated amidst the chaos. Desperately, she ran towards the nearby town of Shimizu. There, she sought refuge. Relief for a few hours.

The next morning, Hide found what once was her home. All that was left was ash. The entire prefecture was destroyed to a barren wasteland. The black earth was still hot from the bombs.

She looked at the sky, thinking how people could do such things. The usual strength of the summer sun was not there, as if the sun felt weak and depressed at the events that unfolded.

War. A three letter word so packed with rage and hurt.

Hide looked into the distance. She could not believe her eyes. Her son was walking towards her, shaken, but alive. Her vision started to blur until heavy teardrops were cascading down her face.

Myra Stull, 18, and grandfriend Imajean Drozkowski, 87, Missouri

Imajean laughed. "And I would light up the oven and dry my hair!"

We live in a world of convenience, where every whim is satisfied and every pleasure pursued. But she once lived in a small house with seven sisters and no hairdryer.

Imajean picked up the picture frame from the dresser for the third time, her confused mind preventing her from knowing that she had shown it to me just a moment before. Her hair fell in vintage, auburn waves around her shoulders in the photograph. Jean confessed to driving her mother crazy in the evenings as she bent in front of the hot oven, brushing her wet hair. It was the best way she could find to dry it in a house full of girls longing to be beautiful.

"Can you believe I looked like that? I had people tell me that I looked like Hedy Lamarr back in the day."

Imajean's dresser now sits in a small room on the third floor of a nursing home. It is covered with pictures of her life and sisters, but the one she is drawn to is that of her own youthful beauty. It is a reminder, even when she can't remember the details of her present life, of a very different time. It was a time when you saved every jar, used every thread, and dried your hair in front of the gas oven. It was a time when even little things had value.

I smiled as she put her hands on my shoulders that afternoon, saying what has become a defining truth in her quietly fading life. She looked into my young eyes with the wisdom of her 87 years.

"We didn't live lavishly, but we enjoyed life. And that's how it should be, I think."

Josiah Varghese, 12, and grandfriend Helen Gru, 85, Illinois


Name? Helen Mary Gru, she replied. Can I peek into your past? Sure, let's take a train ride – all aboard, CHOO-CHOO!…

First stop, 1928, my birth. Fabulous ride for five years till dad got killed by a train and a year later mother died. Orphaned, my train came to a screeching halt. My aunt asked me to join her; a voice said "don't go." Later, I was invited to foster care; the voice told me "go" and I obeyed. The ride resumed.

Huff-puff, nothing exciting, other than the invention of the telephone.

Stop 1949, I got married. After a joyful ride, suddenly my husband died overseas in the Navy. Though the train was now in a dark tunnel, I knew that I am a proud American and if I had to change the world I would do so with respect and peace.

Stop 1969, train chugged through Illinois. It was a long satisfying ride while working at Addison Trail for 24 years.

Stop 1993, I retired.

I have two children and many grandchildren. Occasionally, I munch on my favorite Oplatki wafers and relax by reading Pope Benedict's books on love and peace. I have had a good life/ride.

Her voice shakes and her eyes get moist. "I will take whatever God gives me. God has a plan for me, God is my engine driver. The fifth and final stop will be at the end of my life. I have no regrets. As I watch the beautiful blue sky and feel the cool breeze, I think what a beautiful world we live in. I will miss it when I'm gone. But I am assured that paradise is waiting for me, and my Heavenly Father will drive me home."

Choo! Choo!

Somya Sharma, 13, and grandfriend Janet McDonald, 62, Texas


Janet McDonald is more than a life. Her life was hard. That is what made her strong. She worked for what she wanted. That is what made her determined.

During Janet's childhood, she lived by her mother's words: "Be happy, and do what makes you happy." She enjoyed life to the fullest. She didn't have the best clothes, prettiest face, or most money. She didn't think those things were important until she started high school.

Suddenly, she saw people wearing things she couldn't afford, applying loads of makeup, and teasing those that weren't doing the same. Janet had never been bullied before. It was an unfamiliar feeling of loneliness and hate. Happiness eluded her. She stopped talking. She stopped smiling. She stopped caring. Instead, she started cutting.

The first time she dragged the blade across her skin, she felt relief. Physical pain trumped emotional pain. She thought she could handle the cutting before it became an addiction. She was wrong. She had succumbed to the horror known as self-harm.

As soon as she started, she knew she had to stop. The trigger that propelled her toward her goal was her mother's death. Memories flooded back. "Be happy and do what makes you happy," rang her mother's voice. She was far from happy.

Janet was determined to find a way out of the deep, dark hole she had put herself in. Remembering her mother's words, she was able to last days without cutting. Days turned into weeks; weeks turned into months. Janet had won.

As she told me her story, she didn't cry. She told me with pride. The numerous faded scars on her wrist don't define her. They're battle scars of the battle within her. They're proof that she won. To be happy, she had to overcome herself.

Brookelinn Garey, 10, and grandfriend Magdalena Rauhut, 82,
New York


"Dong, dong, dong!"

The sirens belted out. An eight-year-old girl, Magdalena, rushed down into her cellar with the rest of her family. The Nazis were going to bomb the town where she lived.

After all the booming and banging of the bombs stopped, there was complete silence.

Magdalena went outside to see if she could help clean up from the explosions. She went to the nearby field where she worked to check on how everything survived. Everything was destroyed. But she noticed one small tree that stood in the grass in the field – untouched. The tree was still very little, but it survived the bombs.

Magdalena and her siblings worked in that field for hours for many days after the bombing. She checked on that tree, and it continued to grow.

I can't imagine how frightening it must have been when the sirens went off and to have to rush down into the cellar for safety. I can't imagine walking outside and seeing part of my neighborhood gone. I can't imagine how that tree felt – being alone, covered in dust and remnants of the bombing.

In our own lives, we need to keep trying when things get hard. We need to persevere. We need to be like that tree. We ARE that tree. We need to stand strong even when the world around us can be challenging. Even out of much devastation, life can continue. And, just like a little tree alone in a field, there is hope after all.

Sydney Kennedy, 13, and grandmother Beatrice Clark, 73, Virginia

Not everyone was seen as equal in the past. White people used to think they were superior to black people, and it stayed that way for a long time.

My grandmother lived through segregation as a child and teenager. Her parents had always kindly taught her to fear blacks, but she never had a problem with them. She believed that everyone was equal, no matter their skin color.

She lived in a tiny town in Missouri. She never saw discrimination because there was only one black couple living there. Everyone called them Aunt Sally and Uncle Joe because they treated everyone like they would their family. Sally worked as a maid at a local hotel, and only lived a few streets away from where Grandmother lived.

When Grandmother was in her senior year, she was selling tickets to an event at the hotel. She went to the couple's house and saw Aunt Sally in the front yard. Sally was very courteous to her. She asked Aunt Sally if she wanted to buy a ticket to go to the event. Sally told her, "Oh, honey, we can't do that."

Grandmother asked, "You can't?"

"No, honey. We're not allowed. We can't do that because we're black," Sally told her regretfully.

Grandmother didn't think that was right because they worked at the hotel, but because they were black they couldn't go to an event that Sally would have to clean up after. Also, they were very kind. Grandmother didn't see a reason for them not to be allowed.

That was the first time she had ever been exposed to segregation because it was never talked about. Since that experience, she has been against discrimination. She taught me that everyone was created equal, and that's the way they should be treated.

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