Sometimes we have to take the time to toot our own horns and praise ourselves. It’s hard to stay confident and to remember to love who and what we are. It can be easier to tear ourselves apart and be critical of every little thing, so make a conscious effort to put your self-esteem first. Learn to love yourself–and keep it fresh in your mind every day.
L: My name is Laila Lee Jackson and I’m a total dork. I couldn’t survive without my family and, in my opinion, animals are better than people. I am sixteen years old and I started writing back when I was ten. I am very passionate about reading, which I have enjoyed since about third grade when I discovered the Harry Potter series. After finding Harry Potter I started reading more and more. I eventually stumbled across Percy Jackson and the Olympians and fell in love. With books and the stories that came to life with just a few words, I decided that I wanted to share my own stories with the world, so I started writing. It didn’t start off well. I was a decent writer, but I couldn’t give my stories any real substance. Finally, after basically moving across the state, I found not only my incredible friends, but an idea that came to life and after four years, I finally had the story I’d always dreamed of.
R: What is your book about?
L: I’ve never been good at summarizing a story, but I’ll give it my best shot. My story is about a girl who discovers she isn’t quite normal. Her soul is not her own, but rather shared with that of an ancient Greek goddess. One day, alongside Dakota Greene, Whitney Clarkson (the girl) stumbles across a magical clearing and awakens the goddess, as well as the souls of eleven other ancient deities from several different cultures. Whitney and eleven others are whisked away from the mortal world and sent on an outrageous quest that they can’t expect to survive. Between running from monsters of myth and magical beings that deceive the eye, as well as trying to keep her friends alive, (even at the expense of her own life) she discovers that everyone wears a mask and the difficulty of seeing through it. While that is the basic plot, there is much, much more to the story. Hopefully everyone can discover the world of Whitney Clarkson as she attempts to beat the gods.
R: Who are your biggest inspirations?
L: When it comes to my writing, my greatest inspirations are Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling. Rowling managed to give me an unquenchable thirst for reading. Riordan turned that thirst into a fiery passion and a craving to make my own own mark on the literary world. His works made me push myself and developed my dreams of sharing my own stories with the world some day. In life, some of my greatest inspirations and influences are my parents. My mom, whose mantra in life is probably “walk it off,” is one of the strongest people I know. My dad, tough on the outside, but softer than your favorite blanket on the inside, pushes me to always be the best I can be. I love them and honestly, I probably wouldn’t survive without them. My influences would also include my teachers and coaches. They are literally there everyday. They know when to praise and when to give constructive criticism. They help me to grow as a student and an athlete, but also as a person.
R: I heard that you are also into sports. What sports do you play?
L: I run cross country and play basketball, but my heart belongs to softball. Cross country constantly challenges my mental strength. I used to despise running. It was the absolute worst. However, my freshman year I succumbed to peer pressure and joined the cross country team, where my coach taught me how to love running. Basketball challenges my physical strength and sometimes leaves me worse for wear. I mean, a girl my age who is as athletic and healthy as I am shouldn’t already have aches and pains that make her hobble around like an old lady. I played basketball for a few years when I was younger, but then stopped until my freshman year when I joined the high school team. I worked incredibly hard and pushed myself and I finally made split team, where I had the privilege to play with varsity. I have played softball for as long as I can remember. It was a game I fell head-over-heels in love with. Eventually, my family moved to a small town in northern Nevada at the end of my fifth grade year. I continued to play and then at the end of my eighth grade year, one of the other softball player’s dad put together a travel team, the Wells Rage. Now, before that summer I was an average player. I wasn’t incredibly good, but I wasn’t the absolute worst. I understood the game better than most others, but my ability was lacking. After that summer I grew and I turned from average to above average. I had talent, but with good coaching and hard work I developed skill. Now I’m hoping to continue my softball through high school and at the next level.
R: Do you have an official website or any social media?
L: I do not have an official website or Facebook page, though we are looking into getting one. The Kingdom of Fire is available on Lulu, which is a self-publishing site. It is also available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
R: What advice would you give to other young writers?
L: All I can tell them is to just keep writing. Find a topic you’re really passionate about and just write. I never brainstormed anything. I did research, but once I pulled up my book I just typed. I lost myself in the story and let myself become a part of it because I cared about it so much. The most important part is to not give up. I have given up on a lot of stories because I couldn’t figure out how to start them or end them or transition to the next chapter. But I finally found a topic that I was so passionate about I couldn’t ever imagine giving up on it. I would also advise that you don’t look at any past work with regret that you didn’t finish. Don’t look at it and only see the mistakes. The more you write the better you get. Without my own failures in the past, I never would have grown into a writer. I never would have dreamed that one day I would have a published book. But because of perseverance and dedication, I do.
Faith is sometimes hard to come by, but luckily for me I was blessed with an amazing family who has always encouraged me to trust in the Lord and do what I am called to do. For me, one of those times of calling came four, almost five years ago, whenever I saw disabled children not being able to play on a playground like I could. I knew that something needed to be done, that something needed to change. So that Monday evening at my first city council meeting, I took a deep breath and proposed the Rachel’s Fun For Everyone Project. This project would soon grow to reach over 5,000 people all over the world, taking down barriers and leveling playing standards for everyone of all abilities. The Rachel’s Fun For Everyone Playground is to be built in the spring of 2017. My dream will come true. Kids’ lives will be changed. Of course, no victory comes without trials and tribulations. Throughout this project, there have been times when I didn’t know if I could push further, if I could keep pounding the pavement towards the end goal. There have also been times when I didn’t believe that it was possible that a kid could make such a change in my community, or that I could affect as many lives as I’ve been fortunate to. But like I mentioned before, I have an amazing support system that has helped me make this possible and keep me centered through all of the playground planning craziness. As excited as I am to be prepping the final details for our community build, it’s definitely been hectic and it isn’t going to slow down any time soon. That’s part of the fun. I’ve learned to enjoy it, because it’s a new phase of the process that I haven’t faced, a new adventure to tackle. I’m overjoyed that I’ve been able to share my experiences with you, and I hope that I’ve encouraged you to trust in the Lord and follow what you feel you are called to do. The Bible says, “God helped you begin and he will help you until it is finished.” (Phil. 1:6)
Rachel Ritchie, age 12, has been named a national winner of the 2016 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. Each year, the Barron Prize celebrates twenty-five inspiring, public-spirited young people from across North America who have made a significant positive difference to people and our planet. The top fifteen winners each receive a $5,000 cash award to support their service, work, or higher education. For more information please visit www.barronprize.org
by Rick Huff
“Water!” cried Maizie, as she tore the chinstrap of her headgear from its snap. Her stomach always revolted just before a match, its way of saying, “What the heck are you doing?” She tried ignoring it, but the spiritual bile rising in her guts would build and build until it could not be ignored. Her eyes went wide as she cough-gagged. She had never actually vomited at a meet, but she wasn’t about to push the envelope of her acute nervousness. At last she found the water bottle and squeezed a stream of the fear dissolving solution into her mouth. It didn’t really dissolve her fear, but the action of swallowing assured her that her body wasn’t going to refuse her commands right there on the spot. She snapped her headgear chinstrap tight and resumed her warm-up, bouncing on her toes and wrestling a phantom opponent.
“You’re up Maizie! Go get ‘em!”
She wasn’t ready. She panicked for a moment, the butterflies made a final push at her throat. A little groan escaped and she cleared her throat to mask it. She marched up to Coach Koops for his final instructions. He took her wrists and shook her arms as he looked into her eyes.
She realized her eyes were stretched wide and forced them to some semblance of normality. Relax, she thought, as if anyone saying relax ever actually helped someone relax.
“Head up, elbows in, attack” he said. “Go get ‘em.”
This was the worst part, like a tiny ship leaving the safety of the dock she turned and faced the ocean of the open mat. Here there was nowhere to hide, no one to console, no one to help. Standing in a skin-tight bodysuit in the middle of a gym, about to wrestle a boy who may have years of experience, was not most 14-year-old girls idea of fun. She silently cursed her older brother for talking her into joining the wrestling team, it was always so much fun wrestling with him on the living room floor, now, not so much. She withdrew her curse, even jokingly she couldn’t put that out there; she loved her brother Michael like no one. She knelt and attached the Velcro of the green anklet, hoping the distance of the ocean would hide her trembling.
As she stood, she scanned the patchwork crowd looking for her father. It was hit or miss as to if he would be there at all, and he was hard to spot. A lone figure in dirty Carharts, usually looking down at his phone. She saw her mom, wrangling her baby brother, and Michael, smiling wide with a clenched fist held at his shoulder, a gesture of togetherness and strength. She saw the tiny cluster of her girlfriends, half-supportive, half-embarrassed that Maizie would expose herself in so many ways, they cheered her on earnestly, but wouldn’t be caught dead in that singlet. Her eyes found him, leaning against the balcony rail at the top of the bleachers. He put his hands together in front of his mouth and bellowed something, the words lost to the cacophonous acoustics of the gym, but she could hear his voice, and that was enough.
She stepped on the little white starting line, ready to begin the match, when the referee stepped over to the opposing team’s side of the mat. After a few words he returned and gently grasped Maizie’s wrist, lifting it high, announcing she was the winner by forfeit.
“Noooo!” screamed Maizie in her head. “They have a wrestler in this class, I know it! He’s afraid to wrestle a girl.” It wouldn’t be the first time, and it burned that she would never know if it was some misplaced sense of honor, or the fear of being bested by a girl. She only knew it wasn’t fair. Her eyes snapped back to see her father push off the railing and shake his head. Angry, embarrassed, molten tears flooded her eyes, threatening to pool together and scorch trails down her cheeks. Somehow, probably largely due to the fact she felt a thousand sets of eyes on her, she swallowed the deluge of emotion, at least enough to hold it together until she could escape the eyes.
Coach Koops scooped her toward him with his clipboard of a thousand angles of paper peeking over the edges. “Wrestling is a team sport,” and tapped her on the head with clipboard.
“Nice match, Maizie”, the 167 pounder Murphy said. It sounded sincere, but she knew he was mocking her. She squinted a death-curse at him, careful not to squeeze the simmering tears from their precarious hold. Then, after the next match was underway, she drew her oversized hood low over her face and wept.
After the team dual-meet, Maizie helped put away the mats and scanned the now mausoleum-quiet gymnasium.
“You guys did great!” her mother said.
“Wrestling is a team sport,” said Maizie, hugging her tight.
Her mother smiled, half-bemused, not getting another joke from her inexplicable teenaged daughter. She squeezed her tight.
“I’m going to say goodnight to dad,” said Maizie, and reluctantly broke free from the embrace.
Her father stood next to the giant double-doors of the gym like a tired gargoyle, head stooped down. Maizie ran up and wrapped her arms around the tan leather jacket, stained with oil and grease, and smelling of gasoline.
“Hey Babygirl!” he replied. For that one moment, a span of time that was just Dad and daughter without the complications of life, she knew he was genuinely happy to see her. The moment had deteriorated over the years, and now it burned up in a flash at the latest squabble between her mother and father, or another must-have expense she would ask of him, or a misspoken word.
“You almost made me drop my phone,” he said.
“Poof.” Maizie thought, and stood back a bit to avoid the flash.
“No matches tonight, eh?” he said.
“So good of you to notice, and point out,” she thought of saying, but could only utter, “Yeah. Guess they’re scared of me.”
“How would anyone know?” he said.
Maizie stared at him, at first disbelieving, then unable to disguise her hurt. Images flashed in her mind of how proud he was when she told him she was a wrestler. How he beamed, how he openly showed his pride in her. Was she enduring the hardship of wrestling for him? The question drew thick, hot tears to the back of her eyes.
“I mean, it’s not your fault the coach can’t get you matches,” he said.
“Yeah, well, I gotta go, mom’s waiting. Goodnight.”
She managed to hold the tears until she was halfway across the shiny gym floor. Her mother looked up, saw the glossy eyes of her daughter and opened her free arm without question, shielding her baby from whatever hurt.
A couple days later, Maizie stood in the high school hallway between classes, spinning the combination to her locker as torrents of voices and cheap colognes snaked down the hall around her. A group of boys approached; they were talking about tonight’s big wrestling meet.
“Are you ready for tonight, Maizie?” said her 145lb class teammate.
“Yeah! Can’t wait!” she almost believed herself.
Another boy spoke up, “I didn’t know you were a wrestler, Maizie! Are you any good?” She blushed a bit and smiled.
“How would anyone know?” spewed Murphy, the 167 lber, forcing his fat head into the circle.
Maizie paused for a second, frozen in the thousand lands of what if. The phrase echoed, this time in the voice of her dad. The frustration with her dad, with Murphy, with herself at putting herself through this embarrassment surged into anger. As quick as a snake-strike, she let her tiny fist land on Murphy’s nose. He clutched his face, the blood already flowing. Maizie turned in a whirl, her rich, brown hair and flowered skirt making parallel circles. The cheers of delight, and gasps of shock were enough distraction to allow her to escape the immediate scene, but soon tears flowed as heavy as the drops of blood pooling at Murphy’s feet.
That evening, Maizie’s school hosted the conference championship. Eight teams in a tournament style bracket would face off to determine the top team. During weigh-ins, the coaches agreed to a rarely used rule that allowed a random starting weight-class. This was an effort to change things up so that it wasn’t always the same weight class ending the meet. The weight classes only shifted one, and this meant Maizie wouldn’t be the first person out on the mat, but the last. This worked out wonderfully for the first two team matches, by the time Maizie was up, her team was ahead by so many points they couldn’t lose. She didn’t even mind capping off each team win collecting forfeit wins.
Now, it was the championship team meeting, Maizie sat, knees to her chest, staring at the scoreboard, calculating every permutation of team score. The butterflies in her gut churned; this was going to be close. The sickening scent of unwashed teenage boys clouded by a fog of cheap cologne made her gag. She hopped from her perch in search of a water bottle. The warm, dark hand that had been asleep in her throat awoke. Gently massaging her throat at first, but then clawing at tongue, teeth, and tonsils. A quick spurt of water sent the fiend cowering, melting into only a general malaise in her chest. Her eyes bored holes into the team scoreboard again.
“This isn’t happening,” she whispered aloud. The meet was nearing the end, and depending on the match before, the team winning or losing could be decided by Maizie’s match. “I could run,” she thought. Get the hell out of here. A wave of air belched from what must have been the locker room, old dirty sweat socks, and much, much worse. Nausea followed by a clamp-fist squeeze of her throat forced another blast from the water bottle. Above the darkened corner of the rear doors of the gym, the little exit sign flickered, winking at Maizie enticingly. She indulged the fantasy for a microsecond more before banishing it. She was committed now.
A roll of energy crashed across every corner of the gym. The referee snorted a sharp blast of his whistle and slapped the mat. Maizie’s teammates erupted into a volcano of cheers. They pulled ahead in the team score by five.
“Oh no,” Maizie spat to herself. This couldn’t be any worse. The meet was hers to lose. She shook visibly as she drew the oversized warmup top over her head. The material bunched around her wrists, and for a moment she felt like a bobcat clawing wildly at a trap until the hoodie flew across the warmup area. The hand in her throat was a full arm, elbow squishing butterflies as it churned round and round, fist closed and pushing through her throat. She was definitely going to vomit. Coach Koops approached.
“Oh, God, no.” she thought, as frightened of his words of comfort as the impending match.
“This is it Maizie, you have to fight. He’s more a technical wrestler than you—”
“Code for, you’re in for an ass-kicking,” she thought.
“But that isn’t what it’s about,” Coach continued, the intensity in his voice rising. “Wrestling is about determination, toughness, will.” He held her head in his hands, eyes locked together. She had never seen him so intense. “No matter what, you get out there and give everything you got!”
Murphy stepped up to Maizie as she made her way to the mat, “If you don’t get pinned, we win, just don’t get pinned!”
“Great advice genius,” she thought, hoping her eyes reflected the sentiment.
Here it was again, that long lonely walk from sideline to center mat. She groaned and coughed at the unbearable tension in her gut.
“Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t get pinned. Don’t throw up.”
Time turned to fog, before she knew it she was standing on the starting mark, shaking hands with her opponent, and waiting for the whistle. It blew. Before she could react her legs were tied up together and she was toppling over.
“Man, he’s fast!” she thought. She was already losing, but every single butterfly had flitted off to better pasture. She tried to escape, move forward, up, back, anything to try and get away, but every move she made was countered by her opponent. Her arm twisted over her head as she felt him prying her shoulder up, turning her to her back. The surf of the crowd crashed on the shore as the potential end of the match drew nigh. “No!” Maizie screamed in her head. She propped her little elbow under her body, refusing to let her shoulder touch. For nearly a minute of the first two-minute period she fought from being pinned. As the whistle blew she gathered herself to her feet, involuntary tears streaming down her cheeks.
As the second of three rounds began, her opponent began a strange tactic. He would vie for position, make a move, get two points for a takedown, and then immediately release her, giving her one point for an escape. Maizie realized he was going for a technical pin, a sort of mercy rule when one wrestler was fifteen points ahead of the other. It would team score as good as a pin. As hard as she tried, she just couldn’t fend off his attacks. By the end of the second period, she was down by fourteen points.
Tears were gone now, Maizie was mad. Hurt, embarrassed, humiliated, but mad. From the whistle to start the third round she attacked, throwing herself over and over at her opponent’s legs.
“You son of a bitch!” she thought with each strike.
Her attacks were so unorthodox, so disrespectful, they threw him off guard. She would make a clumsy but willful attack, nearly get taken down herself, but break free on brute strength and will. Again and again she dove at his legs until the time she only feigned her attack. Her opponent reacted, hips forward, legs back, arms out in front, but this time Maizie didn’t lunge for his legs. This time she fired her left arm in an uppercut motion, locking his right shoulder close. Simultaneously, her right arm came down like a lumberjack ax swing and gathered up his left.
With a mournful groan from deep in her soul, she twisted and pulled the leaning wrestler toward her. As they fell, she twisted his shoulders like turning the wheel on the giant door of a safe. She raised and twisted her hips as high and hard as she could and somehow she was looking down on the mat. She had thrown him to his back. The crowd exploded, a wave of pure spiritual energy rode an acoustic wave of vocal-chord-straining screams. It washed over Maizie, healed every hurt, strengthened every muscle. She twisted his arms tight, dropping every bit of weight on his chest, until the ref slapped the mat and blew his whistle. She pinned him.
The thunder of the crowd rolled on. She scanned the smiling, screaming faces; her mother weeping, hand over her mouth; her dad at the top of the bleachers, jumping up and down while a throng of neighbors slapped his back. Coach Koops, standing silently, tears rolling down his cheeks. Finally, the rush of her teammates, as Murphy lifted her on his shoulder, amidst a sea of arms raised in victorious salute. Something became clear in that moment, though she couldn’t deny it was satisfying to have the approval of these people, the nervousness, the pain, the embarrassment, the glorious victory were all hers alone. She was elated, the flood of admiration still lifting her, but in the back of her head she knew this was her victory, and also knew this was her last match. She had learned what she needed from wrestling, that though it is indeed a team sport, it is also intensely personal, and Maizie had grown into the next level of herself.