Iris Jenssen, Olivia Theaker place amongst nation’s best in New York Times personal narrative writing contest

Hudson Reynolds, Editor-in-Chief

The New York Times ran a three-month-long contest, which started in October 2020, for middle and high school students ages 11-19 to submit a personal narrative about a meaningful life experience up to a length of 600 words. They named seven winners, 13 runners-up, 22 honorable mentions, as well as the 95 round 4 finalists on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.

Iris Jenssen, a junior at Arroyo Grande High School (AGHS), and leader of the Sustainability Club, placed in the 95 round 4 finalists (they didn’t give specific places).

Olivia Theaker, Features Department Editor for the Eagle Times and Junior at AGHS was an honorable mention.

Here is Jenssen’s story, Theaker’s is pasted beneath it:

An Unlikely Rescue 

A life in the ocean taught me the difference between harbour seals and sea lions, how to move with the waves, not against them. A humpback whale has swam under my paddleboard and I’ve had a scrape with a great white shark. I’ve observed the habits of marine wildlife long enough to know when something’s amiss. 

“That pelican looks hurt….” notes Ryan, edging closer to the seabird acting strangely.

“Yeah… something’s wrong,” I respond, intrigued. 

As we creep towards the bird, I see its wing is bloodied and twisted. It’s frantically trying to swim away from us. But it’s not moving at all. This is alarming, it must be stuck. No other pelican had allowed people to come so close to it before. 

Then we saw it.

“Ryan,” my dad says, concern lacing his words, “looks like the pelican is caught up in some line.”

It wasn’t the cheap, clear hardware store line I can break with my teeth. No. It was red, thick, and “Industrial strength,” as Ryan called it, “Strong enough to catch some sharks.” Not for some recreational fishing here in this cove. And it was wound around the wing of a pelican, the other end attached to a rock fifty yards away.

We tried breaking it with our teeth to no avail. Besides, any length of line between us and the pelican could entangle more creatures, the line was secured so deeply underwater. It was hopeless.

Then it hit me: this pelican was going to die a slow, painful death because of one irresponsible fisher. How preventable the situation was what hurt the most. 

Anger started to boil. The disrespect of nature. This beautiful nature I loved, tainted by a fishing line that would haunt it for hundreds of years, killing animals left and right. 

It was hard to stomach.  

“Wait,” my dad called, “I saw a fisherman around the corner. I’m going to find him, he’ll probably help.” 

Five painstaking minutes later, he returns with the fisherman in tow.

We explain the situation. Luckily, the fisherman has tools needed to cut the line. He paddles up close to the bird, grabs it with both hands, managing to cut the line close to the wing, preventing it from getting tangled again. The bird is free! 

It slowly made its way to the sculptural rock face, struggled to climb the cliff. Arriving at a protected ledge, our pelican took its place among the ranks. Their colors blended together like a mirage. The pelican would survive. Nature would remain harmonious with itself, a balance often overlooked. There was a peace that descended on me in that moment. A quiet satisfaction. 

But beneath the peace, there was unrelenting anger. 

Because it was a wake up call. 

We’ve been disrespecting and destroying the earth for too long. The pelican reminded me of this devastation. Devastation that’s happening right in my backyard. And I hate it. I hate that any other day that pelican would have died. That it was preventable. I hate that thousands of animals perish because of stupid, thoughtless human choices. Selfish actions, simple as a fishing line.

I realized that nature has no voice to stand up against its own destruction. 

We have to be the ones to fight for it, protect it. Speak for it. 

That bright red fishing line rekindled a fire in me. Red fishing line sticking out like a sore thumb against the blues and greys of the healing sea. Red screaming danger, screaming pain, destruction. 

Red screaming urgent. Red waking me up, stoking the fire, reminding that nature is worth fighting for.


Theaker’s story:

Up There in the Sky

The soft, pink blossoms on the almond trees filled up the car window as I gazed to the right. My head rested against the warm glass, as my mind faded to the memories of stomping in the mud patches all along the bases of the trees and smiling for photos on Bompa’s shoulders in front of the sweet summertime backdrop. Soon the trees disappeared from view, and the car slowed on the pavement. The hearts of my cousins and I beat faster with excitement.

 Our reminiscing stopped for the moment, and our thoughts shifted to the tastes of summer burgers and ice cream, the breeze soon to fly through our hair from the speed of the zipline, the spring of the slinkies we’d win from choosing the correctly numbered rubber ducky, the whip of the mechanical bull we’d fight to stay on longer than our fellow cousins, and the splashes of water soon to hit our faces as we bolted down the water slides. It was the Fourth of July, and this was only the beginning of our celebration.

 The real magic came as the daylight melted away and the black of the evening sky signaled for the family to gather. We huddled together under Nana’s quilts on the green of the golf course, staring at the sky, not saying a word. No one was complaining about the wait, just sitting, anticipating. The first one came. It was just an indication that the show had begun. Suddenly though, huge, marvelous fireballs filled the sky, and colors shot out in every direction. That’s what we had come to see. 

I glanced over to my mom with a faint smile. It was the first year we were under the stars without my dad. It was different. Without him, it seemed a piece of the love and excitement sparked from the great explosions was lost. But, I thought maybe he was up there too, staring at the same fireworks, sharing the wonder in our eyes and mutual connection. I hoped he was. I hugged my mom a little tighter. The fireworks wouldn’t be the same without him lying there next to us, but we felt him in those gleaming colors in the sky.

I hadn’t always been able to picture my dad still in my life after he was gone. As a little kid, you often can’t believe in things you can’t see or hold. Sometimes that’s how it felt with my dad. Every day I couldn’t hug him was a day he seemed to drift a little further away. But the night those fireworks went off, was the night I felt his presence more than ever.

The finale brought the biggest burst and with it my heart and mind seemed to stop. All I could do was lay still, stare, and reflect on how those lights may have made everyone else feel. I wondered if Nana felt the way about Bompa that I did about my dad. I wondered if Bompa was up there picturing the same images of us on his shoulders as I pictured on the ride over. I wondered if Dad was there in the spirit of those lights, looking down on us. Somehow those great big ones had a way of instilling a moment of peace, love, and wonder in people; dad had always done the same when he was down here on the ground with us.

“I love you,” whispered my mom. “And your daddy does too… a whole lot.”

“I know mom. I can feel it.” 

The Eagle Times would like to congratulate these two students for showing drive by writing stories, passion for the content of the stories, and incredible talent in telling the stories. Having two AGHS Junior’s place in the top 100 ish in a pool of over 9,000 submissions is amazing, and it was only made possible by you two stepping up. Congratulations!