WATERVILLE — Gabe Ferris isn’t the type of student who normally forgets homework assignments, but last fall he found himself scrambling to find his entry to a national writing contest, an assignment for his language arts class, on the day it was due.

“I’m the person who has never lost a school assignment, never lost a paper and never forgotten to do homework; and that morning I show up in class and I’m like, ‘Where is this entry ticket?'” Ferris said.

He eventually found the entry for the contest — the Letters About Literature contest sponsored by the Library of Congress — crumpled up at the bottom of his backpack.

“I was like, ‘I cannot send in a crumpled piece of paper,’ but that day was the deadline, so I stapled it to the essay and handed it in,” said Ferris, 14, of Winslow.

He said he had no idea that the crumpled entry form, attached to his assignment, a letter to author Walter Isaacson, would go on to win the national contest, a program sponsored by the Library of Congress that asks students to write a letter to an author, living or dead, whose work changed their view of the world or themselves. Ferris, who is now a freshman at Waterville Senior High School, was one of three age division winners as an eighth-grader last year. He recently traveled to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., to read his winning letter to Isaacson in person.

The Letters About Literature contest is an assignment that language arts teacher Maria Churchill assigns her students at Waterville Junior High School each year. Churchill said she too was surprised that Ferris’ letter went on to win at the national level.

“The first year I did it, I had a student who was a runner-up for the state, but this was the first time I had someone who went beyond the state level,” she said. “I was happy just to hear he won on the state level.”

After Churchill collected the assignments from her students last fall, months went by before the class heard anything from the Maine Humanities Council, which first judges entries on a statewide level.

“It was at the point where you sort of forgot about it, and you knew if you lost you weren’t going to hear anything from it,” Ferris said. “So everybody in the class, we thought, ‘Oh, we haven’t heard anything; they didn’t choose ours,’ and we moved on. We all got good grades and sort of forgot about the contest aspect of it.”

Then in April, Churchill pulled Ferris out of another class to talk to him.

“I wasn’t really scared or nervous, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when she asked me to step out (of class),” he said. His teacher handed him a letter from the Maine Humanities Council announcing he had won the state Letters About Literature contest.

‘We thought, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ It’s really cool,” Ferris said. But the contest wasn’t over. As the winner of the state contest, Ferris’ letter to author Walter Isaacson, who penned “Steve Jobs,” a biography of the developer of Apple computers and technology, was entered into a national Letters About Literature contest. It won again.

Ferris was at home in Winslow doing homework when his mother opened an email informing them of the good news — which he said would not have been possible without the help of Churchill and his parents — his mother, Joyce Galea-Sturtevant, and stepfather Tom Sturtevant.

“I was so awed,” Ferris said. “I just couldn’t believe I had won with this essay. It was awesome to sort of remember how the essay came to be and then to find out that I won.”

Ferris said he chose the book, which chronicles Jobs’ life, because he likes computers and wanted to learn more about Jobs. The book was also more than 600 pages, which meant it would fulfill his required reading for the month in the language arts class. It was an unusual choice, according to his teacher, because most students tend to choose fiction books to write about. She said the nonfiction choice “made it a little more personal, and that’s what I think they’re looking for in a letter, is that personal connection to the author.” She said she assigns the contest every year because the idea of a letter and participating in a contest can help make writing easier for students.

“Writing sometimes doesn’t feel authentic if you’re just writing an assignment for a teacher, but when they know it’s a contest and something that is going beyond my hands, I think they have more interest in the assignment and put in more effort,” she said.

“What I really took out of the book was the good and the bad,” said Ferris, who explained that before reading Isaacson’s book, he had admired and envied Jobs.

“Many a teenager in the 21st century would like nothing more than to be Steve Jobs, the founder of one of the largest, coolest businesses in the world! This was true about me until the day I flipped open the cover of your book,” he wrote in the letter. He goes on to explain how Isaacson’s writing forced him to ask himself whether Jobs’ success was worth sacrificing his personal life for it.

“When you’re so hardworking, sometimes you lack the basic features that make you an all-around good, nice person,” Ferris said. “That’s what I took out of the book, and that’s what the letter was about.”

In September, Ferris, his mother and his stepfather traveled to Washington for the National Book Festival, where he was invited to read his letter to Isaacson in person at the convention center.

“He told me I had a different take on the book than most people, but he said it not in a condescending way,” Ferris said. “He was very open to my interpretation.”

Ferris described himself as “not a big reader” but said he is passionate about writing. He also was a child reporter with the Scholastic News Kid Press Corps for two years and used the trip to interview some of his favorite authors, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin, on Aldrin’s new book, “Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet.”

“I’m really proud of him,” Churchill said. “I’m also excited for all the doors this has opened for him. I know he’s going to do well in whatever he chooses to do, but I feel like this is something he probably wouldn’t have thought of, in terms of his writing being that good, and this is something I hope gives him that little bit of extra confidence.”

Ferris said the experience of the contest and his trip to Washington helped reinforce his love of writing and appreciation for the work of authors, but it also taught him something more.

“Sometimes taking away what other people don’t take away isn’t bad,” he said. “It’s good.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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