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In the hit movie "12 Years a Slave" Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, struggles to write a letter to his family.

In the hit movie “12 Years a Slave” Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, struggles to write a letter to his family.

Let me start off by giving you fair warning that this post will mention scenes from Steve McQueen’s movie “12 Years a Slave”. If you haven’t seen it yet, go see it; until then read this at your own risk. THIS HAS BEEN A SPOILER ALERT.

While watching the movie “12 Years a Slave” I couldn’t help but be filled with emotion. There were several moments that tugged at my heart and made my eyes tear, but the couple of the scenes that moved me the most had to do with the main character, Solomon Northup, played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, struggling to write a letter to his family.

In the movie Solomon risked his life to steal a piece of paper, used his creativity to turn a stick into a writing utensil and made ink out of berry juice. By candlelight he strained to write letters to form words and sentences that explained the horrible thing that had happened to him. Eventually Solomon did succeed at writing the letter. What he did not count on was being betrayed by a white man, less of a slave and more of an indentured servant, who he paid to deliver the letter to the post office. Once the slave master had learned of this deal that was supposed to go down, he confronted Solomon. Being the quick thinker that he was, Solomon was able to flip the script and convince the slave master that there was no letter, in turn, making the indentured servant look like a liar. Since the truth had been found out Solomon reluctantly set flames to letter, leaving no trace that it existed, while at the same time diminishing some hope of his return to his loved ones.

Solomon talks his slave master (Michael Fassbender) into believing that no letter ever existed.

Solomon talks his slave master (Michael Fassbender) into believing that no handwritten letter ever existed.

These scenes hit home with me because at the time I went to see this movie I was struggling to get my teenage students to enter a city-wide writing completion where the winner would receive $500. Second and third place winners also received cash prizes.

The only requirement from those who entered was that they write 500-2000 words finishing this sentence:

If I had the ability to make Chicago a safer place I would…

The majority of my students whined about how the competition would require “too much writing,” how there is “no solution to the violence,” and how “nobody cares” what they think anyway. Anyone who deals with the younger generation on a regular knows that the reaction given is very typical of an average teen. I should have expected it, but it hurt my heart nonetheless. I had just watched a depiction of my history where a man had to hide his intelligence in order to survive, and here I was being forced to use persuasion to today’s youth to write their thoughts out FREELY with the possibility of earning some cash to pad their pockets. Being true to myself, I couldn’t help but get on my soapbox to give a firm reminder of the struggles that Blacks had to go through for an opportunity such as this. I also passed along my new mantra for them to keep in mind, “What’s the best thing that can happen?”  Even that didn’t stop the whining for coming to an end. Making the contest a mandatory assignment did, however, get them writing.

I am proud to say that the essays that the kids came up with, once they put some effort into the idea, where very good. It’s safe to say that in a few cases I was even impressed. You can imagine how ECSTATIC I was yesterday when I learned that the winner of the competition, Jessica Jackson, was one of my very own! After learning of her win she kept repeating, “I can’t believe I won! City-wide, Mrs. Marti! City-wide!”

Did my little soapbox speech have anything to do with motivating this student to write the award-winning essay that has earned her success? Honestly, I have no idea. I can only hope that it did.  This story is just another example of what can happen when you take advantage of the opportunities that come your way and have faith in your abilities.

What’s the best thing that can happen? In Jackson’s case it was winning $500 and receiving a tremendous boost to her confidence. Now, who in their right mind wouldn’t want that?

Until next time…