Writing Catalog

Polly Routh

Grade: 11

Cleveland Heights High School

Instructor(s): Courtney White, Patrick Fisher

I Believe in the Blue Mailbox

Personal Essay & Memoir

I Believe in the Blue Mailbox

I remember bubbling with excitement every time the mail came when I was younger. I would ask my mom hopefully if I had mail as she sorted through the stack of bills, magazines, and political mailers, thinking that somehow my request would conjure a letter. Truthfully, there rarely was a letter for me, but that didn't make the thought of getting a note any less exciting.

I loved writing letters to friends, grandparents, relatives, and anyone else whose address I had. Before I started writing my letters I would lay all of my pens out in front of me in rainbow order so that they were easily accessible. After I wrote my note I would fill the margins of the paper with doodles and stickers until I felt sure it was complete. When I was finished, not only did I have a letter, but a piece of artwork too.

I begged to be able to walk a couple blocks to the mailbox by myself. I was sick of waiting for my mom or dad to walk with me. I wanted to be able to go when I was ready. Although we could send letters by putting them in our own mail slot, something about using that blue mailbox made the experience feel so much more authentic and important. Finally, once my parents were tired of my incessant pleading, I was allowed to go by myself. After I had finished writing my letters I would march over to the mailbox and send them immediately, dropping the letter in the slot as if it included urgent war orders, as if the fate of the country was in my hands.

One day I noticed a paper taped to the top of the mailbox explaining that they would soon be getting rid of it. I ran home to summon my mom so she could examine the notice herself. I was absolutely wrecked by the idea of my mailbox being removed. The paper stated that it was being taken down because people were not sending enough letters. I was 7 years old, and I knew I had to take action. I drafted an email to the United States Post Office listing all the reasons they should keep the mailbox. The list looked a little like this:

I just got permission to walk to the mailbox by myself I use the mailbox I love writing letters Everyone loves receiving letters A couple days after my email was sent we got a response. A woman named SB from the United States Postal Service had reached out to let us know that they would keep my mailbox, and that I had a new penpal.

For the next year I detailed my life to this once-stranger in Washington DC. She sent me birthday presents, special edition stamps, and my own personalized stationery. Getting letters from S was the highlight of my week and I received each one with eager anticipation. Unfortunately, S and I unfortunately lost touch after she moved, but I still write letters to my friends and family as a way to brighten their day. And everytime I pass the blue mailbox I am reminded of her.

I believe that you shouldn't be afraid to reach out and that if something is important to you, you should try your best to protect it. I had no idea if my email to the postal service would have an impact or even reach an inbox. I know not everything I do will have this successful outcome, but I have learned that it is worth trying. I believe that small actions can make big changes in your life. S's letters had a significant impact on my life. I learned about the importance of a letter and how meaningful it can be. I learned how receiving mail and knowing that someone is thinking of you can completely change your day. Letters are connections and connections are the most essential element of human society. I believe that connections are beginnings and some of the most powerful connections start with the blue mailbox in your neighborhood.

Kitchen Tools and Life Hacks: Overcoming Social Anxiety

Personal Essay & Memoir

Kitchen Tools and Life Hacks: Overcoming Social Anxiety

When I was little, I was very extroverted, I loved to talk and to meet new people. I was curious and confident and unstoppable. But that attitude didn't follow me through puberty. In middle school I developed a certain sense of self-awareness that showed itself most often as social anxiety. Talking to new people started to make me nervous, really nervous. But I was comfortable enough to make it through most situations with a deep breath and a smile. Like everyone else, my social skills atrophied during the pandemic and what was once nerves felt like full-on social paralysis. This was especially hard when I made the transition from my tiny 20-kids-to-a-grade Montessori school to my new public highschool with a graduating class of around 400 kids. I started school online which made it easy to avoid talking to new kids, but this relief soon turned to loneliness. I knew I had to do something to start meeting people and making friends. Enter my favorite life-hack, the ice-breaker.

One thing in particular that stressed me out about new interactions was not knowing what to say or saying the wrong thing. Planning out icebreakers - those silly little get-to-know-you questions - helped me overcome this fear. Although this probably made me seem awkward or overly eager, it eased my anxiety and helped me initiate conversation. My favorite icebreaker is "if you were a kitchen utensil what kitchen utensil would you be?". My own answer never changes - I am a whisk! Not only did this allow me to find out a lot about a person depending on their answer, but it also was an easy thing to throw out during a lull in conversation. A simple question transformed me socially. Talking to people was never quite as scary when I already knew what I was going to say. I found comfort in the predictability and routine.

At the end of freshman year when school started to go back in person a couple of days a week, I asked my icebreaker in front of the class. Everyone laughed and gave their answers, and the question did exactly what it was meant to do - it broke the ice of my anxiety. I was no longer overwhelmed by these fifteen new faces that were once hiding behind a computer icon. In fact, after that day my teacher would ask me to start each class with a question of the day. Despite all this social success, this conversation staple did not completely erase my anxiety. I still found talking to new kids scary, especially kids who didn't go to my school.

Last year, my boyfriend, who goes to a different school, invited me to his Junior prom. I was excited to go, but the thought of meeting all of his friends was extremely overwhelming. When we sat down at our table, no one was talking, the entire table was silent. With my heart-pounding, I took a deep breath and asked these strangers "if you could be a kitchen utensil, what kitchen utensil would you be?" At first everyone thought I was joking, but once they realized I asked my awkward ice breaker earnestly, the whole table broke out into conversation.

So ice-breakers, and kitchen utensils in particular, have become a coping mechanism for me in the face of anxiety, I am still anxious, but meeting new people now seems manageable. Asking those silly questions are now a conversation staple. I've learned not to be scared of strangers and to not be afraid of being yourself. And as a whisk, I know I can depend on this life hack, to stir up a conversation in almost any situation.

Little Things Make Big Changes

Personal Essay & Memoir

Little Things Make Big Changes

Growing up one of my favorite pastimes was letter writing. I would spend hours writing and decorating letters to my friends and family. I detailed my life in these notes, using different colored pens, stickers, and filling the margins with colorful drawings. The only thing I enjoyed more than sending letters, was receiving them. I looked forward to coming home from school everyday and running to the foyer to check the mail. Most days, I would leave the front hall empty handed, but on the rare occasion I did get a letter, it was the highlight of my day. A piece of paper with a few words had the power to instantly make my day feel better. One of the reasons I enjoyed letter writing so much was because I could share this feeling by writing letters of my own.

I was able to send out mail by putting it in the mailslot of my front door, but I loved walking to the blue mailbox a couple blocks from my house. This walk included two street crossings and my parents preferred to go with me. As I got older I begged to be able to walk to the mailbox by myself. I yearned for independence even if it was only a 5 minute walk. Finally, my parents gave in and I was overjoyed. I now had the ability to deliver letters whenever I wanted. Although my notes never contained anything urgent, this power made me feel unstoppable.

One day as I arrived at the mailbox I noticed a paper taped to the top that stated it was scheduled for removal. The paper explained that not enough people were using the mailbox. I quickly rushed home and brought my mom to the mailbox so she could observe the notice herself. Later that night my mom and I drafted an email to the United States Post Office listing the reasons I believed the mailbox should stay. The list of reasons included: I myself often use the mailbox and I just got permission to walk to the mailbox by myself. We emailed our list to the USPS and a couple days later we got a response.

Not only were they going to keep my mailbox, but I also received news that I was going to have a new penpal. Over the next couple years, a woman named SB who worked for the USPS, sent me weekly letters, birthday presents, and USPS merchandise. Her letters became the highlight of my week! And I began to see the larger impact of doing one small, simple thing.

My freshman year of high school I started going to public school. From kindergarten through eighth grade I attended a small Montessori school. My older siblings went to this highschool and my family had been involved in the public school district previously, but I was mostly ignorant to issues that affect the public schools. One of the issues on the ballot in November was the school levy. My dad was on the finance committee for the public schools and was involved in the levy campaign, so naturally I got involved as well. On the weekends before the election my family would go to neighborhoods and pass out mailers at every house reminding people to vote yes on the levy. My brother and I worked to assemble signs with other kids our age. Finally on election night, my friends and I had signed up to stand outside a local polling location and give people a final reminder to vote yes on the levy.

Although we were faced with many disapproving looks we did have success in educating people on what the issue was, when they otherwise would have skipped over it. I remember one pair of college boys in particular that walked past us on their way to polls. As we handed them a mailer we told them "you look really cool! Do you know what really cool people do? Vote yes on the levy!" the boys laughed and went inside, but twenty minutes later when they exited they let us know that they voted yes. Later that night my family was huddled around a computer watching the election results come in. We were overjoyed to find out that the levy had just passed. In the end the levy didn't pass just because of those two boys, but it passed by a very small margin. I saw firsthand how important a single vote can be, and the impact one person can have on the larger community.

If something is important to you, you should never be afraid to reach out and protect it. Writing letters has always been something that I've loved. SB's letters showed me that little things can go a long way in making someone feel better. Taking a couple of hours to talk to strangers about supporting our local schools strengthened my belief that my actions do matter, that I can make an impact. Not everything I do will be as successful as the levy campaign or the mailbox, but I know that it is always worth trying.

Think For Yourself

Personal Essay & Memoir

Think For Yourself

When I was 13 there was a big movement online to encourage people to stop using plastic straws. The idea was to eliminate single waste plastic to keep it out of our oceans. "Save the turtles!" quickly became the catchphrase that led the movement. After seeing several instagram stories and TikToks about why we should cut single waste plastic use out of our lives, I was convinced. I decided I wasn't going to use a plastic straw for an entire year. I even bought myself a metal straw to take to restaurants.

Although I applaud my past environmental efforts, looking back at it now it's clear that I wasn't motivated because of my environmental impact, I was motivated because I felt socially superior to others. In public I would internally judge others who used plastic straws, I judged restaurants for having plastic straws, and I judged stores for selling them. I found myself confused- hadn't everyone else seen the same infographics I had, didn't they understand what they were doing to the turtles? I never once considered the fact that plastic straws might have significance in someone's life.

Around the same time, my brother's friend was graduating and getting ready to go to college. For the past couple of years he had met with my paraplegic neighbor once a week. As his college move-in date approached he reached out and asked if I wanted to start meeting with our neighbor in his place. I agreed and these visits quickly became part of my weekly routine. We would juice vegetables, organize her closet, sort through papers, look at photo albums- the activities varied each week.

As I became more comfortable in her house I began to notice the abundance of plastic straws. They were stuffed in the bag that hung on her wheelchair and overflowed a container that sat on the kitchen counter. But for the first time I didn't see the plastic straws as a negative thing. I was looking at the straws clearly, instead of the social superiority lens I used to see them through. It's true that plastic straws are harmful for the environment, but these straws were not for unseen killing, they were for saving my living, breathing, human neighbor. I never considered that straws could be vital to someone's health. I assumed that getting rid of single waste plastic was an easy change for people and that everyone who didn't make this change was lazy. Straws being offered at restaurants and stores was something that I used to feel disgusted by, but now it seemed like it could be a necessity.

Without being exposed to individuality in a community it becomes easy to go through life mindlessly. It becomes easy to believe everything the media tells us. Not only is it easy, but that is what society expects us to do. People who do not go along with the mainstream opinions and ideas are judged and become social outcasts. Without the opportunity to work with my neighbor, observe how she lives, and understand how that's different from my life, I would have continued to be ignorant. Being exposed to diversity is vital in becoming a beneficial member of society.

Big Brothers Reviewed

Personal Essay & Memoir

Big Brothers Reviewed

Leda, the Anetolian princess in Greek Mythology, had two sons, one with Zeus and one with Tyndareus. The brothers were inseparable as they sailed the seas helping those in danger, by bringing them favorable winds. Together they became known as "saviors for shipwrecked sailors". However, the brothers had one significant difference, Pollux, the son of Zeus, was a demigod, and Castor, the son of Tyndareus, was mortal. When their sister, Helen, was kidnapped the brothers embarked on a journey to save her. On their mission Castor was ambushed and murdered by Idas, and his final words were a warning to his brother. Pollux was faced with the decision to either let his brother die or to share his immortality with him. Pollux chose to split his immortality with his brother so that they could stay together. Pollux and Castor went on to live eternally in the constellation Gemini.

I have two older siblings, my sister, Emma who is six years older than me, and my brother, Xavier who is three years older than me. I adored my brother and sister growing up and copied their every move. Every word they said at the dinner table was repeated to my friends the next day at school. My brother's hand-me-down clothes became my favorite additions to my closet. I would sleep in the bathroom next to my brother's room just to be closer to him.

Naturally as the youngest, they would often gang up on me. I was told I was "too young" to participate in their games or their conversations. Not only were we divided by age, but also by interests. My brother and sister preferred activities that were traditionally more masculine, and I was attracted to anything and everything that was considered "girly". I loved tea parties, the color pink, and baby dolls. However, I was willing to put these interests aside to spend time with my siblings. I remember asking if I could play video games with them and being handed a controller. I was so happy to finally be included (it wouldn't be until years later that I discovered the controller had no batteries in it!).

I was around 8 years old the day my hamster died. My mom delivered the news and I immediately started crying as if I had lost a close relative. My brother tried his best to console me, offering the idea that we could get a cat instead. Over the next couple years our family would go on to adopt two cats. The cats and my brother would go on to be my safe haven. I remember being kept awake by the noise of my parents fighting one night. Although this noise was something that we had grown accustomed to, it was impossible to ignore. My brother did his best to take my attention away from it. He suggested that we go find the cats and play with them. Even though we were in the same environment, my brother was always looking out for me, prioritizing my feelings and making sure I felt safe.

I worshiped my brother growing up, but it wasn't until my freshman year of high school that we developed a meaningful relationship. I started high school on a computer screen, which made it hard to make friends. I came from a middle school with a graduating class of 20 kids, now I was not only adjusting to a school with over 1,000 kids but to virtual learning as well. My main social interaction everyday was a Google Meet where everyone's cameras were turned off. Watching my peers interact on social media and in the Google Meet chats made me feel lonely and isolated. I was an outsider with no way of physically being able to get in.

My brother noticed this and invited me to hangout with his friends. He would let me third wheel to pick up food with him and his girlfriend. My brother continued to let me tag along and by the end of freshman year he had brought me two of my closest friendships, as he invited me to hang out with one of his friends and a girl my own age that attended a neighboring school. During my freshman year, my brother and I became inseparable. As he sat at his desk, I would give him detailed stories of my day and recent friend group drama. Deep down I know he was not entirely interested, but he listened actively and once again he put me first. In an effort to avoid hostile dinner table math lessons with my dad, my brother would help me with my homework protecting me yet again. Over the course of my brother's senior year our relationship changed from worshiping him to true friendship.

In the media I was exposed to growing up— books, movies, tv shows— the protagonist always had a best friend. This was a relationship I never felt like I had, and it was difficult for me. This left me to wonder if there was something wrong with me, I would ask myself "Why can't I make a best friend? Why doesn't anybody like me?". Whenever I felt like I had made this connection that I had yearned for, the person would either move away or move on. In elementary school my classrooms were mixed with kids in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade, and then 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. This gave me the opportunity to develop close relationships with kids who were older than me, but eventually they would move onto their next classroom and leave me behind. Despite my efforts to maintain these relationships, the change felt inevitable and impossible to adapt to. It wasn't until my freshman year of high school that I felt like I had a real best friend - my brother.

I was left again as my brother went to college. This was not his fault, he was growing up, but a part of me felt that once again I was being left behind. I cried for days leading up to the day he moved out. When it was finally time for him to say goodbye we avoided the interaction until the last possible moment. Ignoring the obvious, we decided to look for the cats so he could say goodbye to them first. The cats were our safe place and so of course we diverted to them. We kept coming up with tasks, anything to delay the inevitable. I remember standing on the stairs and noticing that he wouldn't make eye contact with me. I stopped so that I was level with my brother, him on the ground and me facing him still standing on the stairs, closing the height gap. Finally without saying any words, we hugged each other and allowed ourselves to cry. Not only did it feel like my best friend was leaving me, but I was also going to be an "only child" at home. Eventually, I would get used to my new routine of being an only child. I learned to set the dinner table to three rather than four, without losing the friendship with my brother that I valued. Although we live hundreds of miles apart, our relationship hasn't changed. Instead of talking to my brother afterschool, I text him numerous times throughout the day. We Facetime at least once a week and he is always there to offer advice.

Developing relationships is a vital part of the human experience. We crave attention and comfort from others. When I was younger I felt like I was missing out on this because I lacked a best friend. I felt out of place and isolated at social gatherings. Every single friendship felt asymmetric, like I was always giving more than I received. I did not realize what was right in front of me until I was fourteen. Similar to the story of Castor and Pollux, my older brother has always watched over me. He did not share his immortality but he was more than willing to share not only his friends, but his time with me. I am eternally grateful to have someone like him in my life no matter how many miles away.

I give big brothers 5/5 stars.