- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) - Until recently, JFK Middle School student Emma Tanner of Florence says she didn’t think much about writing.

Even after her eighth grade English teacher, Holly Graham, convinced her to join an after-school writing group last fall, “I didn’t do much in the first few classes because my friends were in there,” Tanner said. “I goofed off a lot.”

But then she got serious. Really serious.

Last month, Tanner learned she’d won a gold medal in the national Scholastic Art and Writing competition for students in grades 7-12. The award is the first gold medal in her school’s memory and a rare win for a middle schooler in a contest dominated by high school students, according to Graham.

Tanner is one of only three students in Hampshire County to win national Scholastic honors this year. The other national award winners are Northampton High School seniors Julien Brenneck, who won a gold medal for art, and Madison Kaufman, who won silver for photography.

Tanner qualified for the national Scholastic competition after winning a Gold Key for short fiction at the March 8 Boston Globe regionals. After those results were announced, Graham said she thought Tanner “might have a shot” at a silver medal in the national contest run by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers in New York. She was thrilled to learn March 17 that her student had won gold.

Graham, who is in her third year of teaching at JFK, is no stranger to Scholastic competition.

Last year, two of her eighth grade students, Mairead Blatner and Luke Haas, earned silver medals for writing at the nationals - the only two students from Hampshire County chosen in 2013 for national Scholastic honors. (Blatner, now a 9th grader at Northampton High School, won a silver medal at this year’s regionals).

In addition to Tanner, four other JFK students earned honors at this year’s regional competition.

What skills did Tanner bring to the challenge of writing an award-winning story?

Her teacher says she reads a lot. “We read ‘Homer’ in class this year,” Graham said, in an interview last week at JFK. “That’s a good place to learn some techniques.”

Tanner is open to rewriting. “There’s something about Emma that doesn’t shut down when she’s being pushed,” Graham said. “She’s diligent.”

Graham said Tanner’s winning short story, “Happy Thanksgiving,” was a standout from the first draft. It describes an encounter between a homeless woman and a wealthy woman on a Boston streetcorner by shifting the narration to show both points of view.

“Fiction is a chance to show humanity and Emma’s story’s got both sides,” Graham said.

Reading a few lines from the story, it’s easy to see what caught the attention of the judges: “At the corner of Mass Ave. and Tremont,” Tanner wrote, “a woman grasping a small child leaned against a brick office building, cocooned in a threadbare blanket and shivering in the frigid November air.”

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