Student essays surprise and inspire

Joe Nathan

Center For School Change

Jack Wickenhauser, De’shawnte Taylor and Vincent Smith Jr. are eloquent young people. They recently earned awards in a statewide Minnesota charter public school writing contest that attracted more than 2,200 entries.

Their essays answered the question, “What was your best day in school?” Whether you’re an educator or parent, I think you’ll learn a lot by asking youngsters this question at the end of the year.

Jack Wickenhauser, a seventh-grader at Cologne Academy, wrote that his best day “was every day since the end of February.” He started staying after school by choice to “help watch the little kids. … I mostly look after one kid who has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) because I know what it’s like. I try to help him to do the best. … When I look in his eyes, I see a younger me.”

De’shawnte Taylor of Excell Academy in Brooklyn Park described the day an essay he wrote for the DARE program won a first place award. “My mom came to the school to watch our DARE graduation. I felt so happy when I first saw her.  It was very special because it showed me that she cared about me.”

De’shawnte’s essay was a forceful reminder that some of the most important things families can do for their youngsters don’t involve spending money on them – showing up can make a huge difference.

Another powerful essay by a St. Paul second-grader contained a surprise. Vincent Smith Jr. believes his best day in school was when “I got suspended for punching a classmate. I had not been behaving well in school. I have been rude. I have been talking and fighting instead of working.”

He continued, “Getting suspended got me thinking. My dad is in prison, but he often calls me. He is good, but he did something bad. I figured I was the same. I am good, but I do bad things. Being bad is not cool. The day I got suspended was my best day because it helped me change. Now I stay away from trouble. … It feels great to be a leader and not a follower.”

To see humor, honesty, insight and courage, read the winning essays at


Joe Nathan, formerly directs the Center for School Change.