HeForShe writing contest winners announced
December 5th, 2018
This fall secondary school students from 14 of Waterloo Region District School Board’s high schools entered the HeForShe writing contest hosted in collaboration with the University of Waterloo. Participants were asked to write on the personal and public role of allies, within the larger context of gender equity. WRDSB received 85 entries in the three categories of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction.
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. Additional WRDSB contributions will be published as honourable mentions in the anthology for a total of 10 contributions from our secondary student writers.
We surprised each of our winners by visiting them at their schools.
You can check out the talented writing of our winners below:
2018 HeForShe Poetry Winner
We Are One
I am Khadijah
Black ink imbedded my arms
As mere souvenirs of the memories
That scrape my mind
A black cape
Covering me with fear/
I am Parisa.
Hidden behind my camera lens
Hidden from them
A passion stuck in a cocoon
Pondering the day it will bloom
But I am stuck here on this roof
As if I can’t capture frames
As good as him/
I am Marie
Walking on a street in Paris
Dig into my chest/
But he slapped me
His palm marks my skin briefly
His palm marks my soul forever/
I am I am I am…/
Our stories collide
If you take off the pins
Stuck in positions on the map
Our differences subside/
Why do we hide in the dirt
If we are all roots planted in the ground
Holding ourselves together
To finally reach the sky/
With each other, our only direction is up/
But we inhale fear
And exhale silence
As our voices are only heard
If they were fortunate enough
To catch our voices amongst their
Yelling and their screams/
We are authors with novels to share
Photographers that show us the world
Businesswomen that lead companies
Engineers that transform cities/
We hide big ideas in a small world/
Why don’t we replace I am with we are
As a mass of voices
Can be heard louder than/
In this whirlwind of
That mark our bodies
We have to believe that we are
One of a kind/
We are not a minority
Of our time
Should be spent changing the world
Not treated like this/
We are more powerful if we are together
We are one.
2018 HeForShe Fiction Winner
Rose Garden of Daughters
In a garden out of conscious reach, roses of charming elegance bloom with the sunsets and
whisper with the nights. Some crawl up the pillars of the classic tiled gazebo to delight in the shade
while others peek joyfully beyond the fence of their world into the great nothingness. Their realm
provided them with all sorts of exquisite structures for them to play on. Throughout the years, the
roses have survived in the enchanted garden. The wind carried their fallen leaves to the distant
mountains, the sunlight soothed their stiff outlines, the snow left a universe of stars on their petals,
and the rain placed crystal pearls on their faces. The younger ones giggled at the new encounters,
while the older ones thought themselves too mature to marvel and remained hushed in their places.
The sophisticated roses thought they were the ones taking responsibility for the young ones and often
burdened themselves with anxiety whenever they attempted some silly stunt or spoke of a forbidden
concept. “What is that floating house over there?” one would always ask. Then they would gesture
towards the mansion in the clouds. Of course, the older ones knew all about the history of that
mansion. There was the owner, whom the roses deemed “Father”. He was a harsh man, gentle enough
towards the flowers but always seemed to be briskly pacing and worrying of the future. There was the
owner’s wife, whom the roses deemed “Mother”. She was a compassionate woman who had always
had a fondness for roses, and she was the one who had planted the bulbs. Every day, she would put on
her sun hat and gloves to tenderly water the flowers, all while humming a delicate melody. Yet they
decided to keep the inexperienced ones ignorant, as they enjoyed having some compelling
information to keep secret from them.
One day, Father decided that his wife was too old to keep tending to the garden and employed
many gardeners to maintain the area. Mother would gaze thoughtfully from her window at the
gardeners caring for her precious plants, even though it was beyond her capabilities to instruct them.
The gardeners were expected to be able and vigorous to love the roses. Though they were supposed to
rotate evenly throughout the garden, it was obvious some gardeners had favoured certain roses and
watered them with the utmost uncharacteristic gentleness. The roses deemed these ones “husbands”.
To demonstrate their loyalty to the other gardeners, the husbands would tie a lovely ribbon on their
most cherished rose. The roses envied those ribbons as they seemed to give the wearers an
unexplainable sense of self-esteem. Even if the ribbon was too tight against their stalks, the special
roses would proudly present them to the others. There were also some uncertain gardeners that
seemed more like roses than anything. Their hair piled softly on their heads like petals, their eyes
twinkled like jewels in the sun, and their hands were better off reaching for the glow of the stars than
digging around in the dirt. These ones were greatly punished by their employment. Their backs would
ache from the constant shovelling and heaving of particularly heavy packages. Worst of all, they
would be bothered endlessly by the others for being roselike. The strong gardeners would tease them
about their extraordinary imaginations, and Father would frown upon their abnormal appearances.
The most roselike of all was Philo. He tried to keep his roseness hidden under an armour of silence
and disappearance, often retreating to the most obscure of places in the vast garden. His most
preferred alcove would be a nook in a tree, where luminous antique lanterns hung from the branches
and fairies seemed to flitter between the leaves. But this corner of the world would often be too damp
to be seated comfortably, so he usually abandoned it for a spot on a large rock next to the tranquil
waterfall, which was surrounded by soaring columns of marble that seemed to extend to the sky. It
was here that he happened upon the rose that would change his life forever.
It had been a tedious day for Philo. The other gardeners seem to be annoying him even more
over the past few days. This was to be expected as it was the beginning of spring and Philo’s birthday.
Before he came to the garden, Philo had celebrated his birthday with his family. They would cluster
around the table as they savoured the modest feast of cakes and special dishes. Philo’s smile would
reach ear to ear as his uncle danced around the crowd of relatives. But now he only had the teasing
words of his peers to rely on. They would always joke, “Years are passing but you’re still as fragile as
the day you came here!” It was a relief for him to escape to the waterfall. As he pondered how he
could somehow grow just like the others, he heard a weak voice call from the dense bushes. “Is
someone there…?” the voice murmured. Philo was anxious. Had one of the more gardeners that was
more dedicated to making his life as miserable as possible followed him? Yet Philo had taken every
precaution to prevent this from happening. He took light steps through unknown pathways and made
sure to conceal the entrances with pendulous vines. And the voice had a beautiful quality to it that
reminded Philo of tiny bells and sunshine. He took deliberate steps towards the bushes, each muscle
tensing in preparation of flight. When he finally arrived, he gingerly shifted the coiled leaves aside to
reveal the voice. It was the most crumbled rose he had ever seen in his life. Philo gasped and fell back
onto the soaked grass. The rose had an independent air about her in the manner in which she swayed
in the wind. Her petals were crisp and somber, her stalk seeming too weak to support her head, and
yet she had developed knifelike thorns that tore at her surroundings. She seemed to wince a bit at the
sudden light, but then regain her composure. Philo had never heard a rose speak to him before, usually
he caught snippets of other conversations on the wind. The roses were all shy and demure towards
gardeners, often not communicating even to their husbands. They lived in a content bubble of
sideways glances and soft laughs. But this rose was courageous in an approach that drew Philo’s
attention. “What happened to you?” Philo asked. The rose seemed to wilt even further under the
weight of Philo’s words.
Over the days, Philo returned to the waterfall with pure water and compost for the broken
rose. She hadn’t yet spoken again, as if she was weighing Philo’s morals against her senseless
desperation. She brightened immediately when he sprinkled a refreshing shower on her face and
elbowed the bushes aside so she could touch the sunrays once more. The rose was recovering and
displaying her true colours directly. She was sturdy, and was more like a gardener than anything in the
way she bowed her head towards the watering pail. Philo yearned to hear her voice again, as it was the
mellowest sound he had ever heard. As time went on, the rose seemed to be relaxed about sharing her
story with Philo. Though her pleasant vocabulary, Philo learned that she had wished to become
separate from what was expected of a rose. She disliked the accepted quiet murmur of the flowers,
how they innocently behaved to catch the shining eye of a hopeful gardener, that they weren’t allowed
to display their thoughts to anyone but themselves inside their minds. The rose believed that she could
defend herself with her stinging thorns and drink the downpour of the rain to survive, but Father
noticed that she was acting oddly and had her shamefully planted in some shrubs. It was murder to kill
a rose, so it was decided that she would perish alone in the bitter grip of the winter and the intense
heat of the blazing summer sun for not being content in her simple life. Philo shared some of his
painful memories in return, like when he was torn from his peaceful days and obligated to work under
the eye of Father. He explained how the muted brilliance of the constellations was his only hope that
he could someday find his way back home. The rose beamed cheerfully at Philo. “We can be partners
in crime,” she announced. “A rose who seems like a gardener and a gardener who seems like a rose.
We are so very different from what is expected of us.”
Years came, paused for a cup of tea, and left hurriedly. Every day Philo would return to the
rose, whom he named Thalia. “It’s a pretty name for a pretty flower,” he would say, and Thalia would
seem to blush in the pinkness of her petals before standing taller on her roots. Thalia loved hearing
Philo’s imaginative stories and about his desire to be accepted for who he was. Philo loved hearing
Thalia’s stubborn perspective on every subject they could think of and her wish to belong among the
other roses once more. As time went on, they began feeling lonely in their journey to acceptance.
“There must be more of us somewhere in the garden,” Philo said sincerely. “Ones that are hiding their
true selves behind a mirror to reflect what others want to see…”
“Then we must come up with a method of bringing them to the waterfall without anyone noticing,”
Thalia responded. “Oh, I know… you could come under the cloak of night…”
As soon as the sun tucked itself underneath the edge of the world, Philo abandoned his bed
for the garden. Many roses were already asleep, enjoying happy dreams. Yet there were some that
were still awake as they contemplated their nightmare lives. They had to hide themselves constantly
to harmonize with the others, their giggles seeming a bit off rhythm, and their fabricated shyness a
little too obvious. Philo recognised the problems that faced these flowers and gently dug them up to
put them in his wagon. When the sun decided to rise above the wispy clouds, Philo had reappeared at
the waterfall to replant the detached roses. Thalia was delighted to find new companions, and the
others were relieved that they didn’t have to impersonate an ideal they opposed. The boisterous
arguments coming from the waterfall contrasted immeasurably with the sweet hum coming from the
rose sector. Thalia felt remorseful that her conversations with the other roses left Philo to stare at the
fish dancing in the waves of the waterfall, and concluded that he needed some confidants as well. In
the night, she began to sing with a clear voice of honey. If you were heavily asleep you wouldn’t have
heard it, but the ones with thoughts pacing through their minds would hear the light notes floating
through the night sky. They silently departed the safety of their beds to explore the source of the
noise. Yet it surprised them greatly to encounter a fierce army of flowers and a tiny roselike boy
whom they could instantly relate to. And in the night they laughed and hid and overruled the
restrictions that tied them.
2018 HeForShe Creative Non-fiction Winner
The Power of Female Friendship
I am lucky.
I am one of the fortunate people who can say I have five individuals who support me. I have five other people that will do anything for me to help me be happy. That will be there through the best and worst moments of my life. That will help me jump over every hurdle. That will help me change into the person I want to be.
These five people are all seventeen year old girls.
I’ve known these girls for years. I’ve watched them grow, thrive, cry. I’ve been there through
break ups, depression, and anxiety attacks. I’ve also been there while running for coveted
positions, getting good grades, and passing drivers tests. I’ve walked beside them as we fight for our dreams, and when they are wounded, I bandage that pain the best I can. They should always know I am there with them through anything.
I love them like sisters.
But from a young age, we don’t always learn to see other girls as confidantes, people we can
rely on and who rely on us. Who we can share secrets, laughs and heartbreak with. People we rely on to live full lives.
We learn to see them as competition.
We grow up thinking that other girls are who we should strive to beat. We constantly compare ourselves, wondering why I’m not as pretty or as smart or as athletic as her. Always wanting to change ourselves in order to be like or better than. This is the never-ending competition for progress in which girls step on each other or fight for self-dominance.
I’ve seen it, with my friends who scroll through their Instagrams with sad looks, turning their phones to me to show me what nose they wish they had, looking for me to agree that yes, she is pretty. She must be happier than me, look at her smile.
Girls are filled with so much self-doubt that we have a universal language based on our want for what others have. We all understand self-deprecation, we respond with “sames” or “me toos”.
We’re never truly happy with ourselves knowing that there are more superior versions out there.
This doesn’t lead to empowered women taking on the world. This doesn’t lead to more female CEOs or engineers or Prime Ministers. This leads to girls arguing and belittling each other to dangerous points. Subtweeting and gossiping and struggling to reach some imaginary higher level over the “enemy”.
Sure, you can bash her online, take her friends, her confidence, you can take everything you
want that she has; but what do you gain from that? It will end in broken trust and broken
friendships and there will always be another girl who has something else that you want. It’s a never-ending cycle of desire for what she has or what she gets, asking yourself why don’t I have that? Why is she better than me?
If teenage girls don’t support those around them, if they step on each other, how is the rest of the world supposed to treat us with respect and equal opportunities?
I like this quote by Jennifer Garner, “women should take care of each other, not tear each other down.” Despite the stereotypes, the fighting, the catastrophic way in which we learn to perceive other girls, this still happens.
The support she’s talking about, it happens with those five girls I know. Those five people who take the time to know me, advise me and lift me up, they all help to build me up. They help me to be independent and strong, someone who can figure out how to navigate this crazy world the best she can.
The strongest allies a girl could have are other girls who face the same challenges, undergo the same experiences and embrace the same successes. If we want the world to treat us as
powerful women one day, we need to fight against how society pits us against each other and instead befriend and encourage one another.
Gender equality starts through the empowerment of women, by women. It can only improve
once we take that first step towards each other.