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Students honor ‘Mockingbird’

Stephen N. Dethrage

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One of the Honors College’s traditions celebrated its eleventh year Friday, when forty-five high school students traveled to Tuscaloosa for a luncheon honoring the winners of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” essay contest.

Melissa Lawrence, a student at Hewitt-Trussville High School, won the overall contest and was awarded $500. Her high school was also given $500.

“I guess it’s just really an honor that they would choose my essay,” Lawrence said. “I know I really worked hard on the essay because it’s such an amazing book, and I was just honored to be able to write about Harper Lee, an amazing author. It’s great to win a contest based on a book that powerful.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning UA professor Rick Bragg was the keynote speaker for the event and spoke to the essayists about what it means to be a writer, especially in the South.

“It’s a great pleasure to be here in a room of writers,” Bragg said. “It’s great to be able to be here and talk to you about writing, even for just a few minutes.”

Bragg spoke about Harper Lee, her contributions to southern writing, and what it meant to him to meet her, one of his literary heroes.

“It’s a great profession. You really do get a chance to change the world,” Bragg said. “You get a chance to write about people who might not otherwise have their stories told. I think Harper Lee was a champion of a people who didn’t necessarily have a voice, and that’s a pretty wonderful thing to have an award named for. You can be proud of having that on your wall.

“I hope that you keep writing, and I hope that you choose this place as a place to be a writer. If you’re from the deep South, as a writer, you are inherently superior to every other writer on the planet. You are inherently gifted. You are fit to do this for a living, and I hope you do, and I hope you do it here, but above all else, I hope you do it somewhere.”

Lawrence, the contest winner, said she was definitely considering getting her education here at the University.

“My dad went to Alabama, and a lot of people I know, whom I really look up to, they’re also at the University, and it would mean a lot to me to follow in their footsteps here, ” she said.

Every student present wrote an essay that was the best in their high schools and was awarded a $75 check, funded by the Office of Academic Affairs, the Alumni Association, University Libraries and more.

This is the eleventh year UA has sponsored the contest, and Fran Oneal, the associate director of the University Honors Program, said that it was as relevant and successful as it has ever been.

“We’re satisfied with the program, absolutely,” Oneal said. “We have many schools that participate from year to year.  It’s special, too, that we always have entrants from Monroeville, the home of Harper Lee. We even have a lot of interest from other states, asking if their students can enter the contest.

“Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has such deep ties to the state of Alabama, and we find that it’s a timeless book that really speaks to people from year to year,” Oneal said. “Across the generations, the message really gets renewed. I mean, we have problems with intolerance and discrimination and small mindedness in our communities today. The particulars change, but the issues remain the same. It’s a book that follows us across time”

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Students honor ‘Mockingbird’