THE WINNING ESSAY
A Hawarden Grove Christmas
I remember in
London the winters were warm and wet. No snow or ice, just rainy
gumboot-puddled walks in Brockwell Park, while the summer-packed paddling pool
filled of its own accord with rainwater, autumn leaves and rainbows of crisp
in the secret garden underneath palisades of sleeping creeping clematis and
wisteria, swapping the dry dark with the wet light as we trailed the paving
maze to the fishpond at its heart.
waded in patches of newly dug earth, taking worms from the mud as an avocet
might from a turning tide-bare beach. A robin called to me from the crumbling
wall, saying ‘spring will be here soon, believe me, believe me.’ His red chest
puffed out with pride as he sang me a song of love and fidelity. Flattery
became him as I cried at his song, and he flew off knowing I’d believed in his
truth. From the far end of the garden, I heard him begin his flirtation again
with another open heart.
From the top
of the hill in the park we had watched fireworks break out all across the city
that Fifth of November, as if in domino from common to common. But on that
Christmas Day the mist had come down, the park was an island and we were cut
off from the mass of humanity beyond the mist. It was just me, my brother and sister,
and our weary parents inhaling the fog like perfume on a cloud of silage steam
grateful for the relief it brought from the stench of London. That mist-bound
land was our kingdom that day, and I was its princess, adorned with a crown of
diamond drips and drops, soon dried by the warmth of our terraced palace on
”I am Jemma
and I am immortal!"
the one-page autobiography of Houston fifth-grader Jemma Leech who, though
cerebral palsy has left her little control of her body, lives in a vivid world
of images and words that modern technology now is beginning to let her share.
words are for me the glue which keeps my existence held fast in a semblance of
stability," she writes. "Without words, it would all come crashing
round my ears, turning bright sunshine into darkest night. Poetry fills my soul
with delightful hues of life’s momentary escapes into bliss, and torment.
Language is my paint and my keyboard is my brush."
London, 10-year-old Jemma will be named first-place winner in the 16-and-under
category of the prestigious "Write Up Your Street" competition.
Jemma, a student at Mark Twain Elementary School, beat more than 1,600 entrants
in the contest.
native who until a year ago lived with her family in Wales, Jemma will not be
able to attend the ceremony. But in a videotaped acceptance speech — her
voice synthesized by a computer from words she types using a xylophone stick
— she credits her teacher, Pansy Gee, with teaching her "to let my
readers see what I see and feel what I feel."
Elementary is a Houston Independent School District magnet school offering a
literary development program.
me," Gee said Friday. "This child has an amazing ability to express
thoughts, feelings, visual pictures that have been locked in her head. As a
teacher, it’s almost daunting. She’s better at it than I am. I can’t do that,
and I don’t know many adults who can."
Leech’s winning entry … stunned us all with its imagery, craft and
finesse," a contest judge said of Jemma’s essay, a description of a winter
scene near her former London home. "The fact that Jemma is just 10 years
old makes her talent burn even more brightly. It is the one entry that inspired
a unanimous decision — Winner!"
daughter of Caroline and Perryn Leech, moved to Houston last year when her
father took a job as technical director of Houston Grand Opera.
mother recalled, wasn’t breathing after birth, and spent six weeks in intensive
care before being allowed to join her parents at home. The couple knew their
child might be vulnerable to developmental problems. And at 1, when it was
apparent that she couldn’t sit up unaided, Jemma was diagnosed with cerebral
palsy — a disease that affects muscle control.
mother said, was a bookworm from the start.
At an age at
which most children would be toddling about the house, Jemma would spend hours
flipping through books. At 3, she joined her father in reading the daily
grandparents would see her with the books and say, ‘Look, Jemma’s reading,’ and
we’d laugh," her mother said. "We’d show her all the pictures, the
crosswords. We knew she was with us. There was a brightness in her eyes, a
wickedness, and she’d laugh."
age 5, Jemma’s communication skills were limited to tapping out codes for
"yes" and "no." Then one day, as Jemma’s mother worked with
her daughter with flashcards, the child began using them to spell words.
running across the road yelling, ‘Guess what Jemma’s doing?’ " Caroline
In the weeks
that followed, Jemma, as her parents steadied her hand, typed out poem after
poem, story after story, on the computer keyboard.
is one of her big things," her mother said. "She can write poems in a
few words to say the same things that would take a few paragraphs. She has the
power of language. She just loves and revels in words. I have to go to the
mother believes the girl’s musical talent may equal her literary skill —
but to date there is no way to hear the compositions.
heartbeat is written on a stave, with crescendos and diminuendos, tacit bars
and heart-stopping glissandos," Jemma writes. "But my breath is the
libretto, with such glorious poetry and anarchic rhyme that I can’t make sense
of it at all."
moments, Jemma writes about how others perceive her.
can you,’ they say in hushed tones, ‘read, write and think like normal people
do?’ " she writes. " ‘Surely that mother of yours is just making it
up and should stop telling fibs.’ Well, d’you know? I do have a brain and I do
have a mind — and the imagination of Dahl, the poetry of Keats, the drama
of Shakespeare, the music of Verdi and the passion of them all in one."
For her essay,
Jemma will receive about $800 in books from a London bookstore.
$800 in books will be split between Mark Twain Elementary School and the school
Jemma attended in Wales.