When Briarcliff High School senior Angelina Meng received a standing ovation for her speech as the recipient of an Honorable Mention, Youth Advocate for the 2023 NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award, little did she know that she had, in fact, made history.
Angelina found out after accepting the award that she was the first-ever student to win it, making her the first youth advocate to be recognized for her efforts in advocating for education.
The award is given to people who advocate for freedom of literature, whether by their own writing or by actions, and it honors individuals, groups, or institutions that merit recognition for advancing the cause of intellectual freedom.
Members of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standing Committee Against Censorship who served on the selection committee applauded Angelina for her commitment to intellectual freedom and her dedication to combatting censorship.
They commented that “Ms. Meng’s determination is admirable as she embodies what it means to protect intellectual freedom through her advocacy and bravery.”
It all began with a book.
Up until last year, the English Department at the high school included the book, The Good Women of China in the curriculum for all 10th grade students.
However, last year the book came under scrutiny by a number of district parents who wanted it removed from the curriculum. Although the book was never removed from the curriculum, Angelina decided to voice her opinion.
“I spoke out online and attended a Board of Education meeting to advocate for the book’s preservation,” Angelina said. “There were five people who spoke at the board meeting – three were against having the book in the curriculum, while two were for it. I was the only student at the meeting who had taken the course that featured the book.”
A few weeks later, the Board of Education had another meeting and then sent out a statement that the book would remain in the curriculum.
“I can see the reasoning for why some of the parents wanted the book to not be in the curriculum; there were a lot of uncomfortable topics in it,” Angelina said. “But I feel that school is the best place to learn about these uncomfortable topics. We are exposed to so much online in the news and on social media, and if we don’t learn these things in school, we will learn about them elsewhere. The book tells horrifying tales of women who were mistreated, and I learned a lot about the harsh reality for women in China. I think it’s important for students to know about what happens behind the closed doors – if we don’t know about problems, we can’t address them.”
According to Angelina, other concerns about the book were that it would cast Chinese people in a negative light.
“I’d like to think that one book alone will not create or destroy someone’s perception of a certain race. I think that is something that’s taught over many years,” she said. “As an Asian-American, it was important for me to advocate for having the book taught in a controlled environment such as a high school class. It’s very different to read it in a class and discuss it with a teacher, as opposed to being exposed to that information through the news.”
The book was very eye-opening to Angelina.
“A lot of students already had an idea about what happened to women in China, but reading the detailed stories was very impactful,” she said.
BHS English teacher Karen McCarthy nominated Angelina for the award based on her advocacy for the book.
“I first found out that I won the award when Ms. McCarthy sent me a message that I received an honorable mention,” Angelina said. “It was a big surprise but I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until we were at the ceremony.”
Angelina recently traveled to Columbus, Ohio, with her mother to attend the NCTE Annual Convention and to receive the award. McCarthy also attended the event.
During the convention, Angelina attended many panel discussions featuring authors whose books had been banned.
“I got to meet a lot of them and hear about their experience. That was really impactful,” she said.
During the awards ceremony, Angelina gave a short acceptance speech and received a standing ovation.
“I was really nervous to give my speech, and I was really surprised when people started getting up from their seats to give a standing ovation,” she said. “At the time, I was under the impression that giving a student the award was rare, but not unheard of. It was amazing to get a standing ovation. After the ceremony, the president of NCTE told me that this award was never given to a student before.”
“Angelina was amongst an impressive group of recipients who ranged from professors, published authors, PhD candidates, educators, and other professionals who all gave her a well-deserved standing ovation for her courageousness,” McCarthy said.
A self-described “shy person,” Angelina credits one teacher at BHS who has helped her gain confidence as a public speaker.
“All of the teachers at the school have been wonderful, but if I had to pick one class that was especially impactful, it was Write Out Loud with Dr. Thomas Kenney, which I took when I was a sophomore,” she said. “It’s a mix between a writing class and a public speaking class, and I learned a lot about public speaking and really came out of my shell. I specifically chose to take the class because I was very shy, and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. Dr. Kenney is such an awesome teacher and was so supportive; it was an amazing experience!”
“Angelina’s testimony in support of the keeping The Good Women of China in the high school curriculum was the most poignant example of student advocacy that I have witnessed in my professional lifetime,” said Briarcliff Superintendent, Dr. Jim Kaishian. “She went straight to the heart of what a good education is, and what great teachers can do to open student minds to the complex and often difficult realities of the real world. I am so very proud of Angelina, and I am so very proud of the faculty that has inspired her.”
This is in line with the district’s commitment to critical thinking and civic engagement. Students can be capable of gathering and organizing information to make informed decisions and willing to take intellectual risks and challenge their own assumptions, while also participating in civic engagement, being informed and willing to promote the common good through service and civic duty.
Here is Angelina’s acceptance speech:
I am so honored to be standing up here today. I never would’ve guessed that my fight to preserve a book would end in Ohio. First, I want to thank NCTE for hosting this event and for recognizing both the importance of The Good Women of China and my efforts to preserve it.
I want to thank Mrs. McCarthy, who was my teacher when I first read The Good Women of China.
The Good Women of China is a thought-provoking book that exposes harsh truths and was deemed problematic by parents. When I heard about parents contesting the book, I voiced my opinions both online and at a board meeting. Thankfully, the board decided to keep the book in the curriculum.
This decision is more than being able to read an impactful book in high school. It is a testament to the right to knowledge and the freedom of literature. School should be an environment where diverse perspectives are celebrated, not censored.