Briarcliff Eighth Grader Wins National Reflections Contest Award

Briarcliff eighth grader Avni Chandra

Briarcliff Middle School Eighth grader Avni Chandra is one of 12 National PTA New York State students to have earned national recognition in the 2021 PTA Reflections contest.

With her entry “Our President,” Avni won the National PTA Award of Merit in the literature category, after first winning the Award of Excellence at the New York level, which made her eligible to participate in the national contest. She is one of 200 winners nationally and 12 winners from New York State for the overall program.

The theme of the contest, which took place last year when Avni was in seventh grade, was “I Will Change the World by…”

“I was very excited when I first heard the news,” Avni said. “I had been participating in the Reflections contest for several years and I love to write, so it was humbling to see that the work I put in over the years paid off.”

According to Avni, she had originally planned to write a simple story about equality, but soon realized she has something bigger than that.

“As my writing progressed, I realized that this story had greater potential,” she said. “It came with the realization that you have to empower yourself to be able to change the world.”

The PTA Reflections contest invites students in grades K-12 to submit original works of art in the areas of Dance Choreography, Film Production, Literature, Music Composition, Photography and Visual Arts.

Here is Avni’s story:

Our President

It was Tuesday November 8th, 2016. I skipped home from my bus stop eagerly. I rushed into the living room, where I found my mom. My eyebrows jumped a mile at first, wondering why she was at home. She worked as a child psychologist, and usually came home a couple hours after I did. I then recalled that she was meeting my aunt for lunch, and her nice boss allowed her to take the afternoon off.

“Mom! Listen! Today was election day at school for our student government, and guess who was chosen as president? Me!”

“That’s great news, Shakti!” my mom complimented me. “You know, we’ve come so far from when your dad and I were kids. Girls weren’t generally accepted as the people who would play sports or even become a president. In fact, just to give you an idea, let me give you a riddle that would stump most people when I was a kid.

“A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad and leaves the son injured. The son is rushed to the hospital, but just as he is about to enter surgery, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate on this child, for he is my son.’ How was this possible?”

“Easy,” I responded. “The doctor was the child’s mother.”

“Exactly. Yet years ago, people would get stumped because it didn’t occur to them that a surgeon could be female.”

“Wow,” I said, amazed. “So how did all of that change? Were you a part of the change?”

“Yes, I was,” my mother told me, and I could hear a hint of pride in her voice. “My sister and I decided that it was high time we voiced our opinions and made ourselves heard. We couldn’t let gender be the factor that decided any part of our life, including what our jobs are. Your aunt? A science researcher! Me? A published author and now a successful child psychologist with a PhD! Our achievements have inspired many other girls to not let their gender be a barrier for them. And every day, we’re coming closer and closer to having equality.” A thought seemed to strike my mom. “In fact, today we’re hopefully coming closer than ever before! After all, Hilary Clinton is running in the election today and she seems to be a popular vote! She seems like someone who would be a good president, and she would be the first female president in history! Let’s watch and make sure we’re there to see as many results firsthand as we can!”

A few hours later, there was a sudden ‘ding’ on my mom’s phone. She quickly gasped. “It seems like the votes from New Jersey are in! Oh, and they’re for Hilary Clinton! Yay! Let’s call your dad and sister and see the results for all the votes!” My mom used an app called ElectionRun that gave alerts the second any results were out, so you could know when to start watching elections.

“Dad! Shanti!” I called. “The results are now out!”

“Coming!” yelled my sister and dad.

“Hurry up, I’m not waiting any longer to see these results!” my mom called.

My dad and sister immediately appeared.

“Shakti,” my little sister told me, “When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court Justice! Imagine that! Justice Shanti Achara, now deciding the verdict of the mass bank robbery.”

My mother smiled. “I’m sure you’ll be great at whatever it is you want to do, Shanti. Also, my phone just gave me an alert! Apparently, New York voted for Hilary Clinton! Yes!” My mom stated. She turned on the TV, and the first channel that popped up was displaying election results, so we kept it on.

“Alright, folks, it seems like we have another state’s results turned in! California votes for… Hilary Clinton!” Anderson Cooper announced. There was much applause from all our family. “However, that’s contradicting Georgia’s vote for… Donald Trump!” Our family groaned. Trump appeared to be a very self centered and prejudiced candidate. I was surprised he was even getting votes from those many states.

And, sadly, his luck didn’t seem to be wearing out. A couple more states voted for Hilary Clinton, and the rest ended up voting for Trump.

When we heard that our new president was Trump the next day, I sat in front of my bowl of cereal with clenched fists, stone-faced. When I first discovered this, I remember some of the campaign speeches Trump had given. I remembered being bothered by his plans of building a wall at the border of Mexico and America and his plans of getting rid of the EPA and Obamacare, which were systems that would actually help fight climate change and support the underprivileged! “Why would anyone vote for a person with such… such vile propaganda? ” I asked my mom.

She sat down next to me, all dressed up for work, and closed her eyes. After a minute, she sighed. “Sometimes, I think we as a nation pay too much attention to flamboyant people who make baseless claims. They cannot have so much power over us that we will be strayed from the right morals and ideas! Well,” my mom said, sliding her purse up her shoulder, “think about it. Now, I’ve got a job to get to!” She ran into the car.

Well, that was some deep thought. In between solving for x y and z at school, I wondered how people could so easily stray us from being empathetic and thinking rationally. Perhaps it was Trump’s confidence. But not even someone with such a convincing tone should be able to do that! I mean, the president is elected by the people, sure. But all their speeches and talking shouldn’t make us become egotistical people who are no longer empathetic.

The president could try to keep the nation from turning chaotic. And they could tell us what and what not to do. But in the end, it was up to us. We had to be our own president and keep ourselves in line with what is right and wrong.

Yes, that was it. Hilary Clinton wouldn’t have been the first woman president even if she was elected, because so many women had been their own presidents. All those women that we learned about in school? From Susan B. Anthony to Rosa Parks to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Malala Yousafzai, women have been governing themselves, staying strong with their ideas and changing the world.

But how would I change the world with this? Of course, I could try very hard and accomplish a first or make my name known in history as an activist. But more than that, I could encourage people to stand up for what they believed in, while also encouraging them to follow the right beliefs. The beliefs that included equality for all people.

Where better to start than at my school? After all, I was the student president!. One of my duties was to give speeches over the announcements once a month. Well, I already knew what was going to be in my next speech.

*Fast forward 3 weeks into the future…*

I sat nervously with my hands tightly coiled around each other. My breath felt cold on my lips and tight in my chest. On my lap was my first speech as class president. The intense nervousness tightened my chest to the point where it was hard to breathe. However, through all the worry, I could feel some excitement bubbling up through me. Maybe I couldn’t change a nation. Maybe I couldn’t change a state. But I could try as hard as I could to bring about a change in my school.

“And now, your student president- Shakti Achara- giving her Speech of November,” the principal stated into the loudspeaker.

I walked up into the microphone, my legs feeling like lead. I took in a deep breath, and started my speech.

“Hello. I am Shakti Achara, your student president. As you know, the national elections just occurred a few weeks ago. It is of my belief that we were unjust in- not electing a certain person- but in deciding that certain beliefs he believed in were good. We decided that it’s okay if people are not treated equally. We decided that simply because people were born in another country, they should not be allowed into ours. That they were dangerous people because of their race or religion.

How could we have done this? How could we have done this to our fellow humans? When we decided to support Trump’s toxic propaganda, did we think of ourselves in the position of the people that Trump wants to suppress? Did we cry for the people who are trapped at this very moment because of what we decided?

Thanks to us, there is a storm brewing. But we can’t give up on our country. Not when it’s in pain because of our choice. We need to help our fellow people. But how do we do so-in terms of you or me? Well, if each and every one of us reach out in friendship and support to people you know to be vulnerable to such discriminations, we can make a difference. Slowly but surely, treating people with the respect and humanity they deserve, and advocating for all the right values will eventually make a difference and change the world.

Now, since our student government meetings are open to the public, I encourage all students to join our next meeting on Monday to discuss what we can do to help. Some ideas currently in the air are working with charities that support immigration reforms, and protecting values that we hold core, including anti-racism and anti-sexism, by organizing outreach programs to spread awareness. We can participate in protests and, most importantly, hold these core values true to ourselves. Slowly but surely, step by step, we can change the world by being a true activist.

So as our starting point, let’s make sure everyone does their part to make our community a just and inclusive place. Thank you.”

As I stepped down for the podium, I could hear applause from classrooms down the hallway. Further, in my head, I could hear people chanting for equality and myself, a little older, as one of them. A smile crept up my face. We had some work to do.

*3 months into the future…*

I still am in awe with how much we’d accomplished over the past three months. Here’s a peek into some of our accomplishments.

  • Equality starts at home, so here are some ways we’ve acted and spread awareness:

○ Sharing household chores among all family members (with no regard to gender)- make sure there is an equal division of labor.

  • Don’t be quiet when you hear discriminatory comments and learn to recognize unconscious bias

○ Created website with several ideas, including actions to take when hearing discriminatory comments. locations of local protests, explanation of unconscious biases.

○ Allocated PTA funds to organizing seminars and having speakers talk about unconscious bias, prejudices and discrimination. We also had speakers talk about the origins of certain biases.

○ Creating awareness on climate change

○ Introduced “Clean the Earth” program in our community, and organized local clean up events

○ Spread awareness through speeches, posters, and a field trip to a recycling plant, as well as encouraging the three Rs of saving our Earth

Even though this was a lot of work, I still wasn’t done. In fact, this was only the beginning.

1 Comment

  1. I just got a digital picture frame for my birthday which is populated primarily with pictures of my 2 grandsons, ages 6 and 3. When I look at their joyous smiles, see their innocence, I am filled with incredible love, but also incredible sadness to know that they are living in a country that feels like it has lost its humanity.

    I am sad that people who walk into schools, stores, movie theaters, places of worship have to worry about their safety. I am sad that in such an advanced country as ours, some people are homeless or food insecure. I am sad that people of all races, genders, and religions are, still, in this day and age, not respected and accepted, and that some people are elected to office harboring and espousing such disrespect and intolerance. I am sad that everything feels so politicized, instead of being focused on what will improve the lives of all people. I am sad that many of our elected leaders put their jobs and party ahead of the reason they were elected – to represent their constituencies and do what’s right.

    My grandchildren live in a world where a former president can make fun of people with disabilities, spend so much time and energy coming up with derogatory names for others, meet with and condone people whose souls are filled with bigotry and hate.

    What kind of examples are being set for my grandchildren, and for all young people for that matter? What kind of country is this? What have we come to?

    And then I read Avni Chandra’s beautiful and well-deserved award-winning essay “Reflections” online at the River Journal. I was so impressed, not only with this young lady’s beautiful writing, but with her courage, vision, and passion, and with her ability to reflect on such complex topics as gender, equality, inclusion, and empathy. Avni was inspiring and filled me with hope, that perhaps, even at the most grass-roots level, she and others like her can effect change.

    Avni, you have so much to be proud of. Please never lose your optimism, strength, wisdom, compassion, and generosity of spirit. People of my generation need hope, and future generations will need more people like you.

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