May 31, 2006/New York TimesIt's a Tough Life, to Live It and to Write It, but It Just Got a Little Better
By MICHAEL WINERIP
RENE MILES, who has been teaching English for 32 years, has a writer's eye for detail, and that fall of 1999, what she noticed about her new sixth grader, Jessica Atkinson, were the cuffs on the little girl's yellow sweatshirt. "They were dirty and worn and stiff," Ms. Miles said.
Ms. Miles teaches creative writing at the Charleston County School of the Arts, a 6th- through 12th-grade public school where students must audition and only one of three is accepted. Even among such talent, Jessica stood out. Ms. Miles felt her writing mixed a child's directness with startling, grown-up insight. The first month of sixth grade, the teacher singled out one of Jessica's poems, "Flame," giving it a 96 and praising "each simile as unique." ("I am like a flame," 11-year-old Jessica wrote, "so elegant in a way, yet so dangerous to curious fingers.")
In the writing program, students stay with the same teacher from sixth grade to graduation, and over those seven years, the simile Jessica brought to mind for Ms. Miles was a mystery novel, slowly unfolding. "Some days she wouldn't have her book bag or a paper signed and I'd get angry," Ms. Miles said. "She was real quiet, didn't make excuses. She'd just say the facts: 'I stayed at my grandmother's last night,' or 'I didn't go home after school.' I wanted to say, 'Where'd you go,' but I didn't." Jessica often didn't have money for field trips or supplies, and Ms. Miles helped out.
Over time, bits of Jessica's life peeked through her writing. Somewhere around eighth grade, Ms. Miles said, "I realized there was no mom there. I remember crying one day when something she wrote about her mother made me understand her situation a little better." By high school, Ms. Miles said, "I realized she was having trouble with her father. Jessica's writing was tackling some of these things head-on. By that age, they're writing from their heart, from their inside."
What came from Jessica just kept getting better. At its best, her writing feels like something by Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, stories about ordinary people living on the edge, trying to maintain their sanity and continue going forward. In Jessica's stories, a young woman can be accidentally squeezed into the same section of a revolving door with a man in a business suit, and in a few seconds' time, as she steps away in the opposite direction, she knows "my boyfriend wasn't going to be my one and only."
Ms. Miles's favorite is "Swampland," a short story about a 22-year-old woman working as a supermarket bagger and living with a boyfriend who doesn't know many of her secrets, including that she is pregnant.
At the start of senior year, Jessica moved out of her father's home, was supporting herself by working as a supermarket bagger at Publix and paying rent to share a room at her boyfriend's family's house.
The teacher worried: What was Jessica and what was Jessica's fiction? "I tried to get a sense, but she was evasive," Ms. Miles said. At a meeting last fall to plan for college, Jessica said she had no idea how she could afford it or where to go. "It was the first time I'd seen her cry," Ms. Miles said. "She looked at me and said, 'Ms. Miles, is my life ever going to get better?' "
Each year Ms. Miles's seniors enter the national Scholastic writing competition, which dates back to 1923. Five $10,000 first prizes are awarded. Winners have included Bernard Malamud, Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates. Only once, in 2003, had Ms. Miles produced a winner, Sara Saylor. "Someone asked me, 'Rene, you think you have one this year?' And I said, 'If someone wins, it will be Jessica.' "
JESSICA was hoping, too, though she didn't say so aloud. "Since I was 15, I wanted to win like Sara Saylor," Jessica said. "She was just an idol for us. Ms. Miles talked about Sara Saylor, Sara Saylor. Some people would tell me, you're the next Sara Saylor. I didn't think I had a chance, but also thought maybe I did."
There aren't many people she can show her writing to. "I get scared when my family reads my stuff," she said. "I don't want them to think it's about me." She is particularly close to her grandmother. "My grandmother made sure we were fed every day, made sure we had the rent," she said. "Swampland" frightened her grandmother. "She said, 'You're pregnant?!' recalled Jessica. "I said, 'No, it's not me.' "
She asked her boyfriend, Justin Wooton, a music major, what he thought of her writing, but he doesn't say much. Jessica is a voracious reader, loves Milan Kundera, Natsuo Kirino, Chuck Palahniuk, Philip Pullman; Justin rarely reads. "If I say, 'Is this good?' he says 'Yeah,' " Jessica said. "I ask why, but he says, 'I don't know, it's just good.' "
"I'm in CP English," Justin said. "That's the lowest English. A lot of it was above me, but I liked it."
They have been together two years. "She was probably the most independent kind of girl," Justin said, "the way she dressed and how she acted. It didn't seem like she cared about what people thought."
As for Jessica, she said it wasn't love at first sight. "He liked me first, but I didn't like him," she said. "I don't know why I started liking him, he just seemed to get cuter. He's very good looking. He's just so genuine. Not like most guys. I think most guys cheat. But he's one of these guys who doesn't, he's gentle and sweet." When she moved in, she said, it was hard at first, living with him and five family members in a small ranch house. But now, she said, "I like spending time with him, it doesn't bother me at all."
As for her parents, she prefers to say little. She says she loves her father, a car salesman, and feels he did his best even though they had trouble living together. He and her grandmother always ask if she needs money. "I try not to take anything," she said. "It feels kind of selfish if I'm not living with them." About her mother, Jessica said only, "She recently came back into my life."
Last month, Ms. Miles got a call saying Jessica had won a Scholastic $10,000 first prize. Tracking her down took awhile; Jessica doesn't have a cellphone or home phone, but Ms. Miles knew to try her grandmother. "Remember at the beginning of the year you asked if your life was going to get better?" Ms. Miles said. "It just got better."
Jessica had one concern, that took her a few weeks to voice. Did she win because she could write? Or because the judges felt sorry for her? "I know they're giving people opportunity," she told Ms. Miles. "I thought maybe it was like, 'Let's give a girl a chance, she didn't have a mother.' "
Ms. Miles showed Jessica the cover letter to Scholastic. There was nothing about Jessica's background, only Jessica's writing.
"Then I really won," said Jessica, "didn't I?"
"You really won," said Ms. Miles.
This fall, Jessica will attend Oglethorpe, a small liberal arts college in Atlanta that has given her a scholarship to go with the Scholastic money. She chose it, she said, because she will be near an aunt who has looked out for her, because "all the teachers are Ph.D. doctorates, and the tour guides were really nice."
Justin decided to go to Oglethorpe, too, and major in business.
In early June, Jessica Atkinson, the writer, will fly to New York City to get her Scholastic award. Each winner is allowed to take one adult, usually a family member, but Jessica chose her teacher, Ms. Miles.