THE WINNING ESSAY
A Hawarden Grove Christmas
By Jemma Leech
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 bags.
We disappeared 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.
Blackbirds 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 Hawarden Grove.
”I am Jemma and I am immortal!"
Thus begins 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.
"Written 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."
Today in 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.
A London 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."
Mark Twain Elementary is a Houston Independent School District magnet school offering a literary development program.
"She wows 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."
"Jemma 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!"
Jemma, daughter of Caroline and Perryn Leech, moved to Houston last year when her father took a job as technical director of Houston Grand Opera.
Jemma, her 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.
Jemma, her 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 newspaper.
"Her 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."
Until about 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.
"I went running across the road yelling, ‘Guess what Jemma’s doing?’ " Caroline Leech said.
In the weeks that followed, Jemma, as her parents steadied her hand, typed out poem after poem, story after story, on the computer keyboard.
"Poetry 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 dictionary."
Jemma’s mother believes the girl’s musical talent may equal her literary skill — but to date there is no way to hear the compositions.
"My 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."
In darker moments, Jemma writes about how others perceive her.
" ‘How 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.
An additional $800 in books will be split between Mark Twain Elementary School and the school Jemma attended in Wales.