- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Bill of Rights Institute, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, holds an essay contest every year to help high school students think about citizenship, freedom and serving America through the lenses of America’s Founding Fathers and founding documents.

The institute began the Being an American essay contest in September 2006 to help students gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American citizen. Students are required to write a 750-word essay answering “What civic value do you believe is most important to being an American?” In their explanation, they must discuss a founding document, a figure from American history and ways the student personally put the value into practice.

“You see these young people and you say, ‘This is what it’s all about; this is the good part of the job,’ ” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said in his keynote speech at the institute’s awards dinner March 31. “Each of these young people have demonstrated through their essays the mature depth of their thoughtfulness and the discipline that it took to communicate their ideas effectively.”

To Rebecca Wistrom, a high school senior from Essex Junction, Vt., the civic value of integrity is what sets Americans apart.

“Though integrity can mean personal honesty, it can also mean defending the rights of all individuals in society,” she wrote in her winning essay for the New England region. “While the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments may list the rights of Americans, they cannot, in themselves, defend those rights. James Madison said the Bill of Rights is just a ‘parchment barrier.’ Unless people defend their rights with integrity, the Bill of Rights means nothing.”

Ingenuity is at the core of what it means to be an American, according to David Baker, a high school junior from Bexley, Ohio.

“Without a tremendous amount of ingenuity the United States of America would not exist as we know it today,” he wrote in his first-place essay for the East North Central region. “Ingenuity means trying new ways of doing things, new uses for past ideas and developing them until you find a better way. The Founders had to use creativity and ingenuity to develop a system of government for such a diverse people. They were also able to balance the government so that it would treat all citizens and all States equally.”

Angela Stevens of San Antonio, Texas, won first place in the West South Central region for her essay about courage and how it is often overlooked as a vital component for change.

“Civic values inspire people to step out of the ordinary and become extraordinary,” Angela wrote. “Courage, initiative and perseverance motivate us to achieve great things for the benefit of others. Giving birth to America, these values continue to define our national identity. In all things, we must have courage to stand up for what is right, initiative to start the change and perseverance to see it through. Our progress as a society can only continue when these values are embraced.”

Other students, such as Peter Hadar, a high school senior from Los Gatos, Calif., discussed the experience of being paired with an anti-Semitic roommate from Dubai during a summer program at Cambridge University to help explain the importance of tolerance in the United States

“Our first meeting turned into an argument about Middle East politics. After a few hours of yelling at each other and a night to cool off, we finally set down some ground rules,” wrote Peter, the Pacific region winner. “We recognized that we were both teenagers that shared some, but not all, similar beliefs and values. We agreed that our argument should not be personal; rather, it should be a dialogue of our respective opinions. We would also respect each other’s viewpoint. I have to say that I learned a lot about his side, as he did about mine; we ended our summer program with a greater understanding of the conflict between our peoples. Most important, we learned to practice religious tolerance, despite political disagreement.”

He continued by explaining the importance of coexistence and how “religious tolerance is true patriotism; it is a civic value that binds all Americans together.”

Jackson Sittenauer, a high school junior from Topeka, Kan., explained his own views about justice and how he strives to treat everyone equally.

“The golden rule is really at the core of justice. I have been raised to look at everyone in the same way, no matter how different they are from me,” wrote Jackson, the West North Central region winner. “Religious beliefs, skin color, gender, social status, level of education; all of these are held subject to discrimination and injustice, but not to me. I make a conscious effort to get to know each new person that I encounter as a unique individual. Justice is blind and does not judge people due to superficial attributes.”

Sapphire Feltner, of Cheyenne, Wyo., the Mountain region essay winner, discussed the importance of voting and citizens voicing their opinions to continue the freedom Americans have enjoyed since the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776.

“I’ve heard far too many people who never vote complaining about the government that they’re too disinterested to change. I’ve been very vocal to my friends and family that voting tops the list of responsibilities of a good citizen. Additionally, I can continue to write to my Congressmen, ensuring that my voice is heard even though I’m a minor. I was pleasantly surprised last year when I wrote to my local legislators and they responded, despite my age. Moreover, I can attend more political rallies to fight for the causes close to my heart. I should inform myself with the daily news to hold our politicians accountable to what they were elected to do. And, when I’m old enough, there is no reason that I couldn’t consider running for public office. The opportunities are endless, because our political system was designed to make it easy for us to hold the reins of government.”

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