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Listen to a Life Contest
Legacy Project
Listen to a Life Contest Grand Prize Winner
Congratulations to
Michelle Jiang, 13, and her grandfather Rulin Jin, 80
Listen to a Life Essay Contest Grand Prize Winner

Michelle is a grade 7 student at Rice Middle School in Plano, TX. Her English teacher, Lorinda Beekmann, has all the Honors students interview an older adult in the community as part of a Journeys & Passages unit. Students complete both an essay and a poem based on the interview. They find it a valuable experience, often discovering new and "cool" things about people they thought they knew well. Michelle is an avid reader and a creative writer, who sets high standards for herself and her work.


As the shame from two failed college entrance tests sunk in, the option to try once again to rebuild his life dissipated into the smog-filled sky. The only door still remaining slightly ajar opened to gray uniforms with nametags poorly stitched on, and creaky stools in front of a rusty conveyor belt in a dingy, old factory.

With no time for friends or family, my grandfather didn't try to reach out, and no one bothered to reach back. Until one day, everything changed – one of his old teachers decided to extend her hand. She saw the fire in his eyes disappearing. Before anguish and disappointment extinguished that fire completely, she offered to help my grandfather, to guide him through his studies and struggles, and become the mentor he needed. He quickly turned the offer down, saying that he couldn't afford it. But his teacher only smiled and replied, "The success of a student is the largest payoff a teacher can receive."

So, just as the sun has to cling to the last bit of space in the clouds and fight hard to turn a rainy day into a sunny one, my grandfather clung to his last bit of hope, fighting hard to reach his goal. Later, when the test scores finally arrived, it was as if sunlight was once again radiating onto the world. The debt he owed his teacher was paid off – not in money, but in pride.

Sometimes, I still ask my grandfather how he managed to turn his whole life around. He always responds the same way, with the same fiery look in his eyes: "Like the sun always manages to break through countless dark skies, you will always be able to break through countless hardships, because nothing is impossible for a willing heart."

Listen to a Life Contest Legacy Award Winners

Vaidya Parthasarathy, 12, and grandmother
Lakshmi Krishnamurthy, 78, Texas

Many decades ago, in India, on a sunny day, a little four-year old girl with long, oily pigtails and a happy, smiling face was at the beaches of the Bay of Bengal along with her father and sisters. The winds blew strongly, and the blue waves danced merrily. She stood at the shore, clutching her father's hand tightly. After a little while, she gathered some courage and decided to put her sandals on the shore. She started wading into the cool water with her dad. Not long after she got comfortable, to her dismay, she saw a big wave wash over the shore and take her sandals away.

She was saddened, and with tears in her eyes, she said to her Dad, "Appa, the waves have taken away my sandals." Her father told her in a comforting tone, "Don't worry dear, this bad wave has taken your sandals away, but in a few minutes a good wave will come and bring them right back."

Sure enough, a shore-bound, energetic wave brought the sandals back in a trice. The tears vanished and the happiness returned. The little girl now had a beaming smile brighter than the summer sun.

This episode stuck with her all her life. Her dad passed away shortly thereafter. But, his promise that bad tides don't last stuck with her.

That little girl is my grandmother, Lakshmi. Yesterday, we went to the beach. The salty spray from the waves gave her a flood of memories and she shared her story of hope. She concluded comfortingly, "I will always be there for you, dear, even as my father was there for me."

Because she lives with us, I enjoy soaking up wisdom from her and I marvel at her calming influence when I am stressed.

Kavya Chaturvedi, 14, and grandfriend
John W. Barfield, 87, Michigan


On a lazy summer afternoon in 1933, in the segregated, black quarters of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a group of young African American cousins were playing on the dusty side of the road when they came across a ten-dollar bill. They were awestruck; they were going to be rich!

Elation and jubilation were soon replaced by a need for a pragmatic resolution. As the sun dipped below the horizon, only one resolution seemed to be acceptable to all. Each cousin would get a share in this bounty.

Slowly and deliberately, the oldest cousin started dividing up the smaller notes and coins they exchanged for the bill. As the rounds progressed, the youngest cousin's face contorted with confusion. He stared at the stacks. His was the smallest. In a rush, realization dawned and anger replaced confusion. In one sweeping motion he knocked his stack to the ground and stormed off.

His cousins beckoned him with loud jeers and exhortations. The oldest chased after him. Why couldn't he just keep what was being given to him? The youngest turned around and, in an incredibly silent tone, said, "I want, and will always want, my fair share."

As it turns out, the need to get his fair share would define John W. Barfield, who has spent his life fighting for equality. Despite growing up in a world plagued with segregation, he persisted. He created a business, which today manages over $2 billion worth of client contracts. This man, who went from being a custodian in the dark halls of the University of Michigan, now employs thousands all over the world. At 87, my family friend motivates me to believe that I can achieve whatever I want, if only I am willing to fight for my rights and demand my fair share.

Angel Nagy, 9, and grandmother Donna Nagy, 63, Ohio


You may not realize the impact a comb and shears can have in your life until you watch and listen to your hairdresser. My Grammy – My Hairdresser.

Families come and families go. Some come for generations. Memories are formed to tell for years. Ten-year-old Nick loves the candy bowl. He stuffs candy in his pockets to save for later. "Why did you take so many?" Off in college, he remembers loving to have it later and shares that memory. My Grammy – My Hairdresser.

An older woman, confused and scared in the nursing home, with her memory gone. Her hairdresser washes her hair. She remembers the wet hair – "Love it! Love it!" she says as the water runs. My Grammy – My Hairdresser.

Another older woman screams, "I don't want to go in there!" Her hairdresser bends down to be on her level, smiling and inviting, "Are you ready to come in?" The smile comforts her, and she understands it will be pleasant and cheering. "Yes, I am so ready!" Afterwards she decides it is a wonderful job. Her hairdresser touches hearts deeply and calming, making them wish to stay there. My Grammy – My Hairdresser.

Her comb and shears are the doorway to other people and their lives. She brings them into her chair and listens to their stories. She gives advice and reassuring smiles. She is so knowledgeable in life, and uses her time to show others and tell others how to care.

She is a confidante. She has the wisdom of ages. She passes on knowledge, advice, and love. My Grammy – My Hairdresser.

Patrick Dougherty, 16, and grandmother Irene Shrift, 85, Maryland


In 1946, driving was an uncommon privilege, seldom exercised by teenagers, much less a sixteen-year-old girl from rural Pennsylvania. In this era, few people drove because of scarce gas rations. My Nanny was the only girl in her high school who enjoyed this freedom – but it did not come on a silver platter. She worked for her own gas money.

In my grandmother's youth, a typical gas station visit came equipped with myriad amenities that have since faded away with time, such as gas attendants and souvenir maps. My grandmother's hard work at the family gas station was commendable; she was truly a lollapalooza.

Her time as an attendant to her parents' gas station and general store, where she assisted her mother while her father labored on the railroad, began the start of a successful career. Grit and determination were imperative for working with automobiles back in the day. Donning official Atlantic Gas coveralls, she filled up gas tanks with fresh Atlantic fuel, checked dipsticks, adjusted tire pressure, and cleaned windows until they were spic-and-span. One time, my grandmother serviced the Sheriff's car battery and set the caps on the crest of his car's solid black fender without thinking. As a result, the acid on the caps left a pale ring. Although she felt devastated, he kindly responded with, "That's okay, Girlie" – which she perceived as slightly chauvinistic.

Even though gas attendants no longer muster by the pumps in the modern age of self-service, a stop at a gas station always reminds my grandmother of a time when this home-style, accommodating service was the norm. Her tenacity and experience serve as a model for women everywhere, affirming that working women can be successful, even in a male-dominated industry.

Flora Arnsberger, 12, and grandfriend
Linda Pucci, 74, North Carolina

Every day, Linda walked up those same steps after school to that towering door with a beautiful brass design of the Pythagorean Theorem. She pulled on the shiny, metal handle and stepped into the massive library. Built in the time of the Great Depression with beautiful Minnesota sandstone, tall vaulting ceilings, and flawless marble flooring, the library was a second home to Linda. A great contrast to the one-room apartment she shared with her mom, she loved that library with all her heart.

Linda pushed the reshelving cart for her job, past the plush benches and large wooden tables, and placed the books in their rightful places. She ventured through the maze of literature, until she knew every inch by heart. Every book, every Dewey Decimal number, was packed into her mind. The position of every table and shelf in the organized castle. It was a gorgeous castle representing the importance of literature, for Linda loved and still loves books.

At 30 cents an hour, the library job helped Linda and her mother make ends meet, without a father present. Her mother worked long hours too, and Linda was expected to take care of herself.

For the next three years of her life, Linda entered that library every day after school. After a year, she earned her promotion to the Children's Room Head Librarian. Little girls and boys peeked their heads over the librarian's desk with wide grins on their faces, requesting book after book. Linda loved their appreciation of literature.

Linda spent her teen life amongst endless rows of books. She learned her most important piece of wisdom: take some time to appreciate a good book. To all kids now, that means step away from that computer and visit your library. Your life will thank you later.

Yomna Nassar, 14, and grandfriend Maria Kittrell, 98, Maryland


The salty sea breeze caressed her face as her hair whipped her cheeks, leaving her skin rosy and tingling. She slid her pale, thin fingers across the cool metal railing, reaching out to try and catch the misty spray of the ocean as the ship sped along on its endless journey to nowhere.

With a deafening boom, the ship shook and a sudden panic crept over the passengers. Maria was flung back into the railing behind her, stabilizing herself as not to fall to the deck below. She frantically searched for the familiar vanilla-scented perfume that had always identified her mother.

The ship teetered again, throwing Maria off balance. But her mother kept a steady grip on her arm, refusing to relinquish her daughter to the ocean. She looked at the few life boats left and back at the hundreds of people pushing and shoving their way to the front, trying to get onto a boat and live another day. There was no way everyone was going to make it.

As her mother pulled her closer to the lifeboats, Maria saw the despair in the sunken eyes of those who were leaping off the deck, plunging to an icy death. Finally Maria was plunked down into a life boat with her mother's bony fingers still gripping her arm. The boat met the water with a splash and the passengers started desperately steering away from the ship.

In the distance, Maria could see the letters "RMS Lusitania" being devoured by the sea. She could hear the pleading moans of those floating around the ocean, trying to buy a few more minutes of their life. They held on to whatever hope they had left; until the frigid air stifled their cries and silenced them once and for all.

Haneen Assaff, 14, and grandmother Raya Abdul-Hamid, 76, Ontario


Silent, wise, and observant. These three adjectives tell us quite a bit about her, but not a soul knows the genuine story behind her secrecy. She lives her everyday life regularly and acts like nothing extraordinary ever happened. But I can see further than that. Behind all the silence and secrecy, there's much more to her life that remains hidden.

Many lingering years passed when she raised six children as a single mother during war, where she nearly sacrificed herself numerous times for the sake of her children. Times would come when she crept past the Israeli border to retrieve food for her children. Many of these times she was caught by the Israeli soldiers. From a vast distance, they thought she was an intruder seeking revenge for the cold-blooded massacre of innocent civilians. The soldiers would raise their weapons so the tips of their guns were precisely targeting her; however, they eventually realized she was an innocent woman caring for her children's health. She was a hero, a lifesaver. She has many names, but the most important one of all – my grandmother.

During the war, my grandmother lacked the warmth and comfort of a husband. He passed away several years before the war in a car accident. It was definitely a tragic event in my grandmother's life. Regardless, she kept her melancholic emotions hidden and was never questioned because the only remaining individuals in her life were far too young to understand the sorrow of death.

Sometimes I wonder why people give up so easily. Is it because they're too tired to try hard? Or is it that they're tired because they've tried too hard? My grandmother is a living example of a woman who has tried her hardest and hasn't given up.

Jack Chen, 15, and grandfriend
Dominick Lasaponaro, 64, Massachusetts

Some people aren't lucky enough to receive support for their dreams from their friends, family, or role models. This is true for Dominick Lasaponaro when he was a little boy. While it doesn't seem like he had any struggles growing up, when I interviewed Dominick, I found out that wasn't true. He had a huge dream to become a scientist. But no one supported his dream.

He said he didn't care what kind of scientist he became – he just wanted to be one. He loved the human body; he would always draw hands or any body part every single day just for the fun of it.

He had a lot of moments when he wanted to give up his dream since no one believed in him or supported him. But he didn't give up and he kept on trying, because his passion and love for science was too strong for him to give up.

He didn't achieve his dream of becoming a scientist, but he'd still love to be one. Instead of becoming a scientist, he was in the army for many years.

He says, "I don't regret trying to chase after my dreams, since because of my dreams I am living the way I am now with a big, happy family. No matter what people say about your dreams, follow them since they lead you to a happier life than if you hadn't."

Now, Dominick supports his kids' dreams 110 percent by buying anything they need for their dreams like books and tools, or just giving emotional support. He wants them to live a happy life in this world.

I admire Dominick since he's giving his all to support his children's dreams.

Sarah Sawyer, 13, and aunt Saralee Richardson, 62, Florida


Most people receive their ability to hear at birth; but some gain theirs through the help of some freshly-grown produce.

Saralee Richardson labored in the fields along the west coast of California thinning lettuce, chopping broccoli, and discarding rotten carrots. The tasks were repetitive and required little communication, perfect for a young woman some considered deaf.

Saralee had been hearing-impaired ever since she could remember. As a young child, her grandmother tied a red ribbon around her waist and bells on her shoes so she would remain in sight. She was often alone, as she preferred the solitude and it was what she did best. She coped with her bullying issues by simply turning her head – after all, you can't feel the sting of their sharp-tongued words if you can't hear them.

My aunt never remembered being any different. Her grandmother was her role model, her Mother Teresa and Anne Sullivan all in one, the rock and mainstay of her life. She refused to let my aunt be treated differently because she had minimal hearing in her right ear and none in her left.

Saralee's life changed dramatically when another worker in the California fields referred her to a surgeon about her hearing. She had her first surgery in her right ear in 1976, soon followed by her left in 1978. Although the difference was small, the little bit of hearing she gained was enough to give her confidence to seek a "real job" at Lockheed Martin, where she worked for 28 years before she retired. It was there she met the love of her life, and made irreplaceable and wonderful memories.

It goes to show that sometimes miracles can come to us in the strangest of circumstances in the freshest of ways.

Callyn Doesken, 16, and great-grandfather
Warren Doesken, 88, Minnesota


Warren stares at the bowling pins with fierce eyes and determination as he aims for the perfect strike. He takes three even steps forward, swings his arm back, and launches the bowling ball at the pins, never losing focus. Years of practice show in every muscle of his body. For Warren, bowling is therapeutic. It's the only way he can forget all his worries and be himself.

Events in Warren's life have molded him into who he is today. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, nineteen-year-old Warren decided to leave Minnesota, join the army, and fight for his country. Once the war ended, he became a teacher and started a family with a loving woman named Ann.

Warren and Ann spent most of their lives on the Iron Range in the small town of Chisholm. After 53 years of marriage, six children, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Warren's life shattered before his eyes: Ann died of a brain aneurysm. Although this was a tough time in his life, Warren stayed strong and looked to the future with his heart in one hand and his bowling ball in the other.

Warren's life transformed over the years, but one thing never changed: his love for bowling. Bowling has gotten him past many hardships, and it's now something he can't picture his life without.

One thing I learned from my great-grandfather is that life is like a game of bowling. He tells me, "Sometimes you throw gutter balls and you feel you've failed. Other times you throw strikes and feel like you are the champion of the world."

Because of my great-grandpa, I will always remember to never give up hope for a strike – because if you don't believe in yourself, how will others believe in you?

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