When Cloquet sophomore Bella Genereau was first assigned the task of writing a 300-word essay for her 10th grade English class, she had no idea how it would impact her life.
Now, roughly a month later, she has not only earned an award for her work, but has also gained insights that she is sure will have a long-lasting effect on her.
Genereau originally wrote the essay as a part of the criteria for Cloquet English teacher Jason Richardson’s class. Richardson shared that this is an annual assignment that he does with his sophomore honors students.
Not only do the students write the essays for class credit, but Richardson also encourages them to submit their pieces to the “Listen to a Life” competition.
“Listen to a Life” is a national writing contest run by Canadian nonprofit organization The Legacy Project that accepts submissions for 300-word essays written by youth age 8-18 that focus on a significant story from the life of an elder.
Richardson has been helping students produce submissions for the “Listen to a Life” contest for roughly 10 years and said he loves the contest’s theme of “everyone has a story.”
As a part of the process, Richardson instructs his students to choose someone who has impacted their life and interview them in order to find what he calls “a nugget" — a pivotal moment in that person’s life.
When Genereau heard the assignment criteria, she said she instantly knew who she wanted to write about: her grandmother.
“She just had a really interesting story,” Genereau said. “She’s been a big part of my life and she’s always been there for me and helped inspire me to be my best, and so I just chose her to kind of give back to her and share that with other people.”
So, she called her grandmother and listened as she shared stories that Genereau had never heard before.
After two interviews, Genereau honed in on her grandmother’s marital relationship in the 1900s and her unwillingness to submit to her husband as the central focus for her essay.
“The one and only world she knew consisted of a one-room schoolhouse, a predominantly white community, and a life where being a woman meant bowing down at the feet of males who believed they were kings,” Genereau wrote. “My grandma never bowed.”
Even though she thought she had no chance of winning, Genereau decided to submit her work to the competition in hopes of sharing her grandmother’s story with the world.
While it was slightly intimidating sharing something so personal and important to her with complete strangers, Genereau's risk paid off when she was informed that she had won a Legacy Award.
“I was not expecting to win at all,” she said. “I was in shock; my jaw dropped.”
Genereau was the only Minnesota contestant to win, placing alongside six other students from schools throughout the United States, as well as one grand-prize winner from Wisconsin.
As a part of the victory, Genereau will receive a keepsake cedar mini chest, a framed award certificate and an autographed copy of the book “Dream”: an award-winning bestseller about a lifetime of hopes and dreams.
“I was excited for her,” Richardson said of Genereau’s win. “I liked her paper; I thought it had potential.”
Genereau shared that the most difficult part of the process wasn’t writing the essay itself, but rather narrowing down the story to 300 words.
“It’s a daunting writing assignment,” Richardson said. “It teaches you every word matters.”
The seven winners from the contest symbolize the theme that one person’s life can impact seven generations — something Genereau found to be very true.
“Through the process I definitely learned from my grandma to just keep being who I am and not letting other people’s words and actions control me or affect me,” she said. “I think there’ll always be something I can look back on … to give me strength, and they’ll help me to keep pushing through my own challenges like my grandma pushed through hers.”