A Testimony to the Polly Rosenbaum Creative Writing Contest
By Retired Teacher and Contest Judge Conrad Davis
With every tick of the clock, the present recedes into the past, traditions are replaced by a new generation with new ideas, and sometimes the loss is tragic. Polly Rosenbaum was a teacher from Globe who filled a seat in the Arizona Legislature left vacant by the untimely death of her husband in 1949. As might be expected, she became a champion of education. Because Polly knew that the best way to make education important to students is to provide recognition for their achievements, she created the Arizona Statehood Day Creative Writing Contest, which soon became a valued Arizona tradition for many years until after her death in 2003, when the contest fell victim to cost-cutting measures. However, thanks to the Arizona Educational Foundation, it was resurrected and named for its founder, becoming the Polly Rosenbaum Creative Writing Contest, and it remains a valuable educational opportunity for Arizona’s students.
As an Arizona high school English teacher, I began participating in this contest sometime in the 1980’s (when the topic was always Arizona’s Treasures) and continued until I retired in 2016. Over those years I taught many winners, but the last was my most memorable. Kylie, who sat in the fourth seat of the last row, came to my attention when she earned a lower than expected grade on a weekly test. After class I called her to the front for a tête-à-tête. She was amenable enough, but she never stood still: her feet, her hips, and her hands were in constant motion. Although I wondered why she couldn’t stand still, I spoke only about strategies to improve her score on the next test.
The following Monday students were reading aloud their Polly Rosenbaum Creative Writing Contest entries and keeping a rate sheet to help me determine the best essays to submit to the contest. When it was Kylie’s turn to read, her classmates began to turn their heads and stare at her. As she concluded her presentation, there were numerous exclamations: “That was so good! That was amazing!” Kylie had a sheepish grin on her face, which I pretended not to notice.
A few days later, Kylie surprised me again. I was seated in the bleachers of the gymnasium watching the Winter Sports Assembly. The J.V. Pom Squad was introduced, and there was Kylie on the front row. The Squad’s dance routine was amazingly precise and quite athletic. This was the group that would later take first place at the national competition in Florida. I now understood why Kylie had trouble standing still; she was using every possible opportunity to practice her routine. I also understood how the many hours of practice for this activity had impacted that test score.
In class the next day I announced the results of the students’ voting on the Polly Contest entries; Kylie had finished in first place, which meant that she was to come in at lunch to edit her essay. The editing process was another surprise for me. Instead of being resentful at having to spend her lunch hour in this manner, Kylie was eager to participate. When I would suggest a better way to express an idea, she would often offer a better alternative herself. Throughout the session, which lasted two lunch periods, she frequently commented: “I always liked to write, but I never knew I was any good at it.” When the email from the AEF announced the results of the judging, Kylie had won first place.
On statehood day, Kylie’s entire family: her three siblings, mother, father and grandmother (the heroine of Kylie’s story) were at the Capitol for the celebration, and Kylie gave a particularly articulate reading of her winning entry. After lunch in the old Supreme Court Chambers, Kylie’s father, grandmother and siblings left to meet other obligations, but Kylie and her mother remained to explore the Capitol Museum. It just so happened that while we were peeping into the office of Governor Hunt and admiring that iconic wax figure of Arizona’s first governor seated at his ancient desk, the Capitol Historian saw us and offered to give us a guided tour. While he was telling us stories of Governor Hunt, a true man of the people, who would stop his car and introduce himself to strangers on the side of the road, I saw Kylie make a few familiar moves with her feet and her hands, and I was convinced that if the gregarious Governor Hunt could have met her, he would have been delighted to meet the dancer who was also such a talented writer.
When it came time to leave, Kylie’s mother gave me a warm hug and thanked me sincerely for showing Kylie that she truly is a very talented writer. As I waved goodbye, I thought of the good people at the Arizona Educational Foundation who have endowed so many students with a powerful sense of self-confidence. By resurrecting the spirit of Polly Rosenbaum, they are preserving one of Arizona’s most valuable treasures.