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High School Non-Fiction-1st Place


High School Essay/Non-Fiction
First Place

Elephant in the Room
Maya Gosztyla

I was the only atheist in my seventh grade glass.

The various Christian denominations were scattered throughout the room. There were Catholics by the teacher’s desk, Protestants next to the window, a small congregation of Orthodoxes clustered in a corner. One girl was Muslim, one boy was Jewish.

And then there was me. My category was marked, “Other.” The walls were overcrowded by the other signs, so mine was taped to the floor, right in the middle of the room. The others formed a circle around my isolated spot. I could feel a thick, heavy smog of curiosity exhaled through half-open mouths, swelling in torrid waves that crashed in slow motion over me. I folded my arms tight to my chest and stared at the floor as if uncaring, feeling their hot wide eyes burning holes into my skin.

Our social studies class had undertaken an exercise in religious tolerance by assigning an area of the room to each faith, labeled with papers taped to the walls. Everyone was to stand in the spot correlating to his or her own beliefs. The expectation was for the students to see all the different religions that could mesh neatly in this ordinary classroom.

My teacher seemed too pleased with the picturesque scattering of diversity throughout the room to notice the sizzling blush that scorched my cheeks. I could only imagine the possibilities running through their minds, the vagueness of my “Other” title tantalizing their thrilled imaginations, so many possibilities, scientology, Satanism. I could hear faint whispers rippling through my caging circle. A single laugh rose shrilly above the room and hovered there. I winced, recoiling under its sharp whip. I could take no more.

Gingerly, draping myself in a veil of complete nonchalance, I extended one foot beyond my own area, toward a random sect, and took a single step from my shameful circle. The room grew silent as I took one more step away from myself and into normality.

Suddenly I felt all eyes torn from me, to stare in amazement at something else. I, too, turned to look at the fascinating object behind me. It was a girl, one who had stood among the Catholic followers, a polite and studious child with pale blonde hair. She was walking away, away from them, toward me. Her gait was quick and nervous, her hands shoved deep in her pockets. She arrived at the little paper labeled “Other” and stopped. She waited, eyes lowered.

I stood unsure for a moment, hovering halfway into the blank buffer zone between the outer circle and the center marking. The girl glanced quickly at me, eyes wide and ever-shifting, before returning her gaze back down to the floor tiles.

The room waited.

Slowly, slowly, I turned, and made my way back to the center, my feet clumsy and stumbling, taking my place beside the girl, inside the burning circle.

The whispering had stopped. The class just stared.

Then, without warning, the world began turning again. The teacher sent everyone back to their seats, beaming with pride at the cleverness of her own little project, completely unaware of the silent drama which had just played out in the room. From across the room, my savior and I exchanged a secret glance.

I will never forget that day, the simple event in my life that gave me the strength to accept my own beliefs, to endure others who do not. There will always be people who think less of me because I have no religion, because my beliefs contradict their own in a way they cannot understand or tolerate. But because of that single girl who broke away from the safety of the crowds to endure the burning spotlight with me, I will always know that there is hope.

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