- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Last year, some of Juan Baires’ fellow third-graders unfairly accused him of swearing on the playground because they knew he couldn’t speak English.

His teacher’s punishment galvanized Juan, who had immigrated from El Salvador with his family, to devote his free time to learning English.

“From that day on, I didn’t play at recess,” said the 10-year-old, a fourth-grader at Truesdell Elementary in Northwest. “I just stayed [indoors] studying English until I learned. …

“Now I can defend myself, I understand homework, and I [have] also made new friends,” he said of his learning English, reading from an essay. “I even help my older brother and younger sisters with their homework and I also teach them new words.”

Yesterday, Juan was one of 38 D.C. public school children who were honored for overcoming personal troubles to become excellent students. During an awards ceremony at Sumner School in Northwest, each of the students — all fourth- to ninth-graders — read aloud essays they had written about their experiences.

Julio Montiel, a ninth-grader at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest, told how he is learning to cope with the death of his younger brother, Fidel. In August, Fidel, who had suffered from spina bifida, died after playing video games with his big brother.

“[I] draw on my brother’s courage not to give up,” Julio, 14, said yesterday. “What’s my future? I don’t know where I’m going really, but at least I know where I’ve been.”

Ten-year-old Stuart Maeder said he struggled three years ago to hide his illiteracy from his second-grade classmates and teachers. Rather than blaming his parents, teachers or circumstances, he overcame his shame and approached his teacher for help — eventually developing a love for books.

“Even now, as a fifth-grader, I continue to read every day,” said Stuart, who attends Key Elementary School in Northwest. “Though I may not be the fastest or best reader, reading has opened up my mind and given me new ideas.”

Yesterday’s awards event — the 17th annual Celebration of Youth essay contest — was sponsored by Global Harmony Through Personal Excellence Inc., a D.C.-based nonprofit group.

Each student received a certificate of recognition and notes of congratulations from Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Education Secretary Rod Paige, members of Congress, sports figures and other celebrities.

“Everyone is proud of you!” author Maya Angelou said in a letter to the essayists. “I join your family, teachers and mentors in wishing you joy.”

The authors of the best essays in the elementary and junior high school divisions received cash awards.

In the elementary division, Juan won $250 for his first-place essay and Stuart $225 for his second-place entry. In the junior high division, Julio took home a first-place award and Berta Gonzalez, a ninth-grader at Bell Multicultural Senior High School, won a second-place award.

“Through writing, prayer, my mother’s love, excelling in school and having self-confidence, and through time, I have slowly overcome the heart attack and death of my father [four years ago],” said Berta, 15, who works part time to help support her family. “I can survive separation and loss.”

Third-place winners received $200, fourth-place $175, fifth-place $150 and honorable mention $60.

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