Congratulations to the HeForShe writing contest winners

This fall, 97 secondary school students entered the HeForShe writing contest hosted in collaboration with the University of Waterloo. Participants were asked to consider how gender equity fits into a larger equity story, and explore where there are overlaps and connections between gender and race, ethnicity, age, ability, class, faith and/or sexuality.

Through poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, students expressed their point of views on gender and equality.

Judges from the University and the school district selected three of our talented students as winners in the youth category and awarded $500 each, as well as the honour of being published in the University’s anthology on gender equity.

The University of Waterloo was so impressed with the quality of all the submissions that at least 10 WRDSB student pieces will be published in the anthology.

You can check out the brilliant writing of our winners below:

Lama Abdallah 

Poetry

Fluent in Excuses

by Lama Abdallah, 17, Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School

You have molded me into a

Native speaker of Excuses

 

The straight, unaugmented truth

Is a decrepit book written in a forgotten language,

Faded and weighted down by the threat of time,

Weeping dust when at last it is opened.

 

And I am the isolated author trying to remember

Forgotten tastes and textures  

That were once sweat and pain and laughter

And a happy ending between the covers of a leather-bound manuscript.

                                       

I want my happy ending back.

And I will go through pain and sweat and laughter to get it.

 

No more

No, I’m not that hungry. The first day of fasting is usually hardest.

Fighting to get past a cage of clenched teeth

 

No more

No, I’m not dying of heat. You get used to it.

Regurgitated from the back of my throat

 

No more

Oh, it isn’t that bad. I don’t have to do my hair every morning since it’s covered up anyway.

Slithering from the barrier of my lips

 

And no more of the questions

in your squinted eyes and pitying expressions

 

Does your religion make you starve yourself

Will you be forced into an arranged marriage

Is your father allowed to beat you

Does he make you dress like that

Why you and not him why you and not him why you and not him why you and not him why you

                  

No more

 

I am not oppressed.

How dare you imply

That I don’t know my own mind

That I am so weak I bend to the wills of the men in my life

That this scarf is on my head

For any other reason than my wanting it to be

That I am a victim

Trapped in the chains of a barbaric faith

 

No more.

I will re-learn what has been forgotten

I will dust off the rumpled pages

And lose myself in the beauty again.

 

Yes, I am a little hungry and I choose to be.

Yes, I am hot and I am glad.

Yes, I choose to wear the hijab.

 

And no, I will not be your excuse

To victimize women of my kind,

I will speak exactly what is on my mind

Without worrying how it conflicts with your views

On telling a woman how you think she should dress.

 

Rose Danen

Fiction

The Broken Road

by Rose Danen, 18, Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School

“Libby!”

I draw my gaze back to my bemused best friend, Beth. She was waiting for an answer.

“What?” I say confusedly trying to pretend I had been listening. God, I hope she doesn’t realize what I had been looking at.

“I was telling you about how I brought my boyfriend to dinner with my family last weekend and how Gram Gram kept flirting with him. Were you not listening at all?”

“Ya, I was listening,” I mutter, distractedly.

I steal another glance behind her streaked hair. She turns her head to follow my gaze. She locks in on the handsome man across the dim bar and checks him out with a knowing glance.

“Damn, Libby.”

She shoots a mischievous grin my way. I can’t make eye contact with her, making note that her blatant staring has caught the attention of my Mystery Man.

“You know, I have the sudden urge to pee,” Beth stated, sliding out of the booth.

“Wait no…” I try, but quickly give up.

Mystery Man was already stepping down from his barstool and walking my way. I look down at my drink, fighting the smile playing on my lips.

“Is this seat taken?”

His voice is rich and I’m instantly turned on.

“Depends on who’s asking…” I say playfully. He smiles and sits down beside me, leaving the seat across from us empty. My skin buzzes from his proximity.

“My names Devin.”

“Libby.”

“Can I get you a drink, Libby?” he smirks.

I nod. He waves down a waiter who hurries over and takes our drink orders. After he leaves, Devin turns back to me, draping his arm across the seat behind me.

“So Libby, what do you do?”

“I’m a real estate agent.”

“You must be very persuasive.” I take a moment to try and decide how to respond. His gaze is so distracting.

“Well, I guess. Most people know what they want though.”

“I know what I want,” he says, his eyes slinking down my body.

My breath catches in my throat. I was suddenly very aware of how close he was to me. I try to shift back a bit but was met by the wall behind me. The ice cubes in my drink begin to clink against the glass. I gripped tighter to it, trying to calm my shaking hands.

“Is that so?” I said, trying to read his eyes. He responded by putting his hand on my thigh. The warmth that came with it made my skin crawl.

“Um, we just met.”

I tried to make it sound humorous and playful, but my voice sounded foreign to my ears. He just shrugged his shoulders,

“So?”

Suddenly his lips were on mine and I was greeted with the taste of cigarettes. My mind flashes back to highschool Libby, sitting in a garage with cigarette smoke dancing around her messy hair. I can feel the weight of the butt between her fingers, recalling the state of her chewed up finger nails.

The memory makes my stomach churn and I push Devin away.

“What are you doing?” I whispered hysterically.

“Showing you what I want,” Devin breathed heavily.

His lips began kissing my neck and I could feel his hand on my thigh gradually moving upwards, slipping beneath the hem of my pencil skirt. I felt a tear escape my eye.

“Um, I don’t…”

“Just relax,” he interrupted.

I tried to relax but at this point my mind was delirious. What was happening? How did I get here?

His rough fingers grazed my panties and something in my mind went off.

“Stop.” He doesn’t hear me.

“Stop! Get off of me!” I cried. I pushed him out of the booth with a sudden burst of strength.

“What the hell!” he barked, looking at me furiously from the floor.

I couldn’t look at him. I gathered my bag and blazer under my arm and burst out of the booth past Devin. I pushed through the mess of bodies that fill the bar. When the door opened, I was greeted with the cool air from the street. My eyes darted around and I spotted a bus stop. I took a sharp left and made my way towards it, desperate to collect my emotions.

When I reached it, I sat down with a huff. I took a moment to fill my lungs with the sharp, cold air. And then I cry.

My body shakes with every gasp, my mind racing.

Why me? Why did this happen to me?

I could hear my mother’s high pitched voice lecturing me. I replayed the conversation we had before my first interview; her telling me what to wear and how I should do my hair.

“Nobody will respect you if you don’t respect yourself.”

Oddly, it seemed to fit quite aptly to this moment. That just made me cry more.

I was feeling dizzy, my mind spinning in circles. I turned my body, lying down on the bench trying to force the headache away. My body needs to get itself together.

Breath… breath.

I keep repeating that word in my head until my eyelids begin to feel heavy. I fight the urge to succumb to sleep, focusing on the stoplight across the intersection, bright green. My eyes flutter open one more time, long enough to see the light change to red, and then I slip into unconsciousness.

 

I wake with a shiver.

I reach for my blazer but I find a withered blanket instead. I open my eyes and I see feet rushing past my face. A pair of heels, a pair of winter boots; they all slush through a thin layer of wet snow.

I move to an upright position and my bones ache with every movement. I look down at the cardboard beneath me and blame it for my discomfort. I crave the feeling of curling up with a book in my warm bed at home. I tugged at my oversized jacket and blew warm air into my hands covered by an old pair of gloves, trying to mimic that sense of coziness.

I evaluated my surroundings and spotted the bench I had been sitting on across the street, a pile of snow sitting where I had once been.

I was suddenly overcome by a pang of hunger. I rubbed my stomach, trying to ease the audible complaints it made.

I notice a coffee shop and get up from my nook on the street. With my movements, the crowd of people passing by seemed to gravitate away from me as if a wall stood between us. Nobody makes eye contact with me.

I slowly begin making my way to the shop, bumping shoulders with people who were hurrying in the other direction. The smell of coffee pulled me into the shop and towards the counter where a teenage boy was standing.

I cleared my throat.

“A medium coffee and a breakfast sandwich please,” I croaked.

“Is that all?” The boy sounded bored, going through the motions of his job. I nodded my head.

“That’ll be $3.39,” he stated.

I reach to my hip for my purse and my heart skips a beat when I realize it’s not there. In a moment of confusion, I reach into my pockets only to find that they’re empty. The boy looks at me impatiently.

“Hey lady, can you hurry up please. My lunch break is only so long.”

The angry voice belongs to a middle aged man dressed in a very expensive looking suit. He glares at me impatiently.

“Sorry ma’am. No money, no food,” says the boy behind me.

I turn back towards the entrance of the coffee shop as the impatient man steps up to the counter. I drag my feet back out the door, my stomach craving the food whose smell follows me outside. I stand there for a moment, not sure where to go.

Then I spot the bench. Without thinking I begin to walk towards it, my eyes fixed on the bench. My chest begins to tighten as my energy blooms with the sounds of the intersection.

Then a car horn cuts through the rest of the commotion. I look towards it, realizing my mistake.

The last thing I hear is the sound of screeching tires before the car collides with my body.

 

My breathing is heavy as I open my eyes with a jolt.

I’m alive? I assess my body, accounting for every body part. I sigh with relief, thankful for the disappearance of the car.

I’m still surrounded by people and loud noises but the air is different.

The atmosphere is buzzing with energy and the sun shines brightly on the dark pavement.

A man bumps into me. He is wearing rainbow flare pants and not much else, aside from the jewelry. I’ve never seen someone wearing so many bracelets.

“Oh girl! I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there,” he laughs as he pats my shoulder. He continues on, following the flow of the crowd down the street. I was forced to follow as well; the street so thick with bodies dressed in absurd costumes.

My breath quickens.

My heartbeat speeds up to match the loud music playing through the streets.

I instinctively bring my hand to my mouth, the overwhelmingness of everything triggering my old bad habit. Ever since I quit smoking, nail biting had become it’s replacement.

I rip at my index finger and immediately regret it. I spit out the piece and look down at my nails which were painted with bright, rainbow nail polish.

Even in my cloud of confusion, it  kind of made me want to smile. I’m overcome with a sense of joy. My happy moment is magnified when I spot the bench.

I begin walking towards it. I’m getting closer. I’m almost there when I’m stopped by a metal barrier. On the other side of the barrier stands protesters holding signs saying things like Homo is a sin, Repent, Turn or burn.

I start to move the barriers but I’m stopped by a middle aged lady with dark hair.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she belts at me.

“I’m just moving the…”

“Back off fag,” she interrupts. She begins to yell a string of insults towards me, each biting away at my resolve. A single tear escapes me as I turn and begin walking away from the barrier, trying to put as much space between the protesters and myself.

 

I’ve forgotten where I am. My surroundings are a blur. All I know is that I need to keep walking. My feet kick at my long skirt.

My surroundings slowly change; the buildings and the cars coming into focus. The streets are empty, the sun beginning to set between the buildings.

I realize I’m not going anywhere so I stop. I look around, searching for a destination.

Then I see the bench. The bench gives me a sense of false hope. It already seems like a lost cause and I haven’t even begun to walk toward it again.

I look around again, trying to find something else; anything that would encourage me to not pursue the bench. Somewhere deep down though, I knew it was the right thing to do.

I began walking.

“Damn, lady.”

I put my head down. The voice came from a man with dark skin and a scraggly beard. I felt his eyes scan down my body.  I keep walking, trying to ignore him.

“You should really take off that scarf. I want to see your pretty hair.”

I stop confusedly. I look up to my side at the building beside me. My reflection in the window was foreign; my clothing not my own. I brought my hand up to my head, brushing my fingertips against the soft material of the hijab I’m wearing. It’s a gorgeous emerald green colour that compliments my brown eyes.

“Can you smile for me, sweetheart?” asks the man. His voice makes my skin crawl; a familiar feeling. I put my head back down and start walking again. I reach the bench. I look down at it for a moment, taking in the fact that I finally made it here. I made it to the bench. I bring my hand towards the bench, wanting to feel the cool metal on my skin.

“Hey lady, I was talking to you!”

The man’s voice makes me jump, the proximity of it indicating that he is right behind me.

Suddenly he grabs my hijab ripping it off my head. The force brings my body backwards and I fall to the ground. My scalp burns and I wonder if he ripped out a chunk of my hair. My neck aches and I want to cry.

I never did touch that bench.

 

“We want change! We want change!” the voices fade in.

I’m surrounded by people, all of them chanting towards the building in front of us.

The large building looks official, the people coming in and out of it all wearing business attire. I slowly begin to join in the chants.

“We want change!”

My arm feels tired and I look up to see a picket sign in my hand that reads Black lives matter.

I’m suddenly overcome with emotion, realizing the weight of what I’m doing. My voice becomes louder and more passionate as I continue to chant. I feed off the energy that is running through the crowd. The need for change can be heard in each voice.

All of a sudden a gunshot rings through the air.

Screams pierce through the air as everyone ducks.

There was a moment of silence. Everyone was taking in what just happened… and then chaos.

I stood back up and began running. The sign was ripped from my hand. I abandon it, not bothering to look back, as it tumbles to the ground.

Everyone was running, trying to get away.

My heart pounds in my chest. The adrenaline is pumping through my legs. I can’t see where I am going and all I know is that I need to keep running.

There are sirens in the distance. They are faint, the boisterous panic of many people overpowering them. There are so many bodies in front of me.

Then they seem to split and I suddenly realize why.

I stop in my tracks, narrowly avoiding a collision with the bench.

No. I can’t move.

My feet are stuck in place as people rush past me. I don’t know what to do. I just stand there and stare.

Then I hear another gunshot and I begin to feel numb. My knees collapse beneath me and I fall to the ground. I lie there, unable to move. All I can focus on are the feet rushing past my face.

Then everything goes black.

 

“Libby!”

I woke to the sound of my name. I forced my eyes open. Staring back at me is Beth, her concerned features bathed in green light as she rushes toward the bench that I’m lying on.

I must have been asleep the whole time.

“Oh thank god,” my best friend exclaimed, “I was so worried about you!”

The events of the evening come rushing back to me and I feel the urge to cry again, but then I remember my dream.

“I…I…” I stutter as I begin to sit up.

“It’s okay,” Beth reassures me, wrapping her arm around me in a side hug.

“You don’t have to tell me what happened. When I got back from the bathroom and saw that you were gone, I thought you had left with that guy, but then I spotted him in a booth with another girl and I was freaking out. Then, this waiter told me everything and said you rushed out of the bar by yourself and… Oh my gosh. I’m just glad you’re okay,” Beth huffed, out of breath.

She squeezed me tighter and I was suddenly very grateful that she was here.

“I am too. I’m better now though. I’m actually great,” I said, thinking back to my dream.

I could still hear the voices and feel the cold running down my spine; feel the kink in my neck from a moment that didn’t exist.

What was I supposed to do with this? Was it an omen, a prediction, a vision? Perhaps my subconscious was telling me something or perhaps it wasn’t telling me anything at all.

Maybe I’m supposed to do something profound or change things so that girls don’t experience what I experienced tonight, or maybe I’m just supposed to understand.

Maybe society isn’t seeking to be a thing of harmony and peace. Maybe it’s seeking to challenge people, to teach people, to inspire people. Maybe I’m just where I am supposed to be tonight; at this intersection sitting beside my best friend.

“Thank you for looking out for me.” I said, hugging Beth back.

“Of course, that’s what girls do,” she says with a smile.

And in that moment I knew everything would be okay.

 

Word Count: 2840

 

Kaleigh Wiens

Non-fiction

Asexuality: Not Just For Flowers or Snowflakes

by Kaleigh Wiens, 17, Eastwood Collegiate Institute

I am a girl. I live a fairly ordinary life; I have friends, hobbies, and passions just like everyone else I know.

But I am also not, apparently, normal.  Why?

 

I am not straight.

But I am not gay.

I am not even somewhere in the middle.

I am neither.

 

Whenever I tell people that I identify as ‘asexual’, they will, almost inevitably, respond: “Huh?” And I tell them what it means, because I understand their confusion and I am happy to educate people, but their next response is always (far more) disappointing.

“Are you sure you just haven’t found the right cute boy yet?”

Or: “Don’t worry, this is just some phase you’ll grow out of.”

And of course, the tried-and-true: “How do you know until you’ve tried it?”

And I think to myself, I know because it’s true. It’s part of who I am and it’s been like this for as long as I remember, even before I realized that asexuality was a valid and legitimate thing. I’ve spent so long agonizing over the fact that I am not like other people in a fairly significant way, that at this point I don’t think there is another option but to openly embrace it, because it will not change.

Unfortunately, it took me an incredibly long time to really come to terms with the word ‘asexual’. Not at all because it is bad, but because I was always told that such a thing did not exist.

I was raised in a religious household, and though I do love my family and they are not bad people in the least, they would not accept the fact that as a young girl I thought that I would never have sex.

“Oh, you’re just being a good Christian girl,” they said, “You’re waiting till marriage just like you’re supposed to!”

And even as a kid, I didn’t think they were right. I knew there was something more to it.

And the worst part was, because of my family’s well-meaning but inaccurate responses, I just accepted that as truth and essentially let them shape my opinion on who I was as a person. So growing up, I ignored my inner feelings and just forced myself to believe that I would grow out of this phase when I got older and met the perfect person.

Now, I still have problems with accepting my innate sexuality, because of all that time I spent denying it to myself and hoping it would go away. That has stunted my emotional growth, and I’m struggling now to make up for it and fully embrace myself.

Looking back, I believe that the reactions I have gotten to what is apparently some bold and brazen idea are because there is such a stigma around the physical act of sex. It is a sacred topic, and though the act of it is inherently good, it must not be publically brought up for fear of offending one’s delicate sensibilities. But every time that I say to someone that I do not want to ever engage in the act of sex, it is immediately acceptable to discuss as they bombard me with questions about such a despicable life choice and try to convince me to be ‘normal’. So what I’ve learned, is that it’s only inappropriate when it’s done differently from you.

Another interesting double standard I’ve noticed is that I am often asked “What if you change your mind? You’ll really be sorry then, won’t you.”

It is usually said to me jokingly, or in a spirit of genuine ignorance or confusion and, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. I just have to explain myself a little further.

But once, and only once I had to turn that argument around back onto the person asking. Someone asking invasive questions about me and my life, eventually culminating in questions about my private thoughts and sexuality, and being quite rude about it. So I got to watch them struggle for words after I asked them (someone who bragged to me about their sexual prowess and partners) if they were sure that they wouldn’t change their mind about liking girls and wanting to get laid every night, like they were bragging about.

Their response?
“NO! Why would I want to change? My life is AWESOME like it is!”

And he leered at me, completely unaware of the awful and selective hypocrisy he was perpetuating. Then he made the suggestion that I’m just pathetic and lonely, and that I will never be happy if I don’t immediately reverse my way of thinking and just decide to be normal.

So essentially, the LGBTQ+ and Asexual communities are constantly being pushed to ‘change their minds’ and deny the parts of them that should not and really cannot be denied. But no such thing is inflicted on those whose libidos are ‘focused where they should be’ and do not stray beyond the limited view of what is acceptable. In other words, there is a pretty obvious double standard imposed on those who identify as literally anything but straight, and the people who are straight are not subjected to it and are often even taught how to pass on that double standard.

With all the fighting going on about identity and discrimination, we are the one group that is too rarely discussed. People never consider us, and it’s disappointing to me: it’s too hard to fight. We shouldn’t have to battle so hard to make ourselves be heard and validate our most basic feelings. There is an intersection, between our knowledge of who we are, and what the rest of the world thinks our opinions and beliefs should be. They think we have consciously made a choice, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to simply make a different choice, as if that wouldn’t mean going against everything we know to be true. And maybe some people don’t see the issue with that way of thinking, but right now you need to know that there is an issue. There is such an issue.

Because there are some things you can’t choose. And what you identify as and how you live your life are not things that can be debated. They are not choices that you can simply make and discard as it suits other people.

So today, I am standing up, and advocating for those who so often get ignored. We are the Aces, and we deserve better than what we have gotten.

We have not made a choice. We have just accepted something that the rest of the world cannot, and finally learned to embrace what makes us something that others can’t understand.

We all came to the same intersection at some point in our lives, and had to choose whether to conform and deny ourselves what we need the most… or to break free and become everything our own souls call us to be.

In a world full of scorn and dismissal, we dare to tune out the choruses of those who want to dictate our lives for us and learn to do what makes us happy and fulfilled.

We are brave, every one of us.

We are strong, we are determined.

And we are valid.