Earlier this month, Christina Polge (’22) was named the winner of the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Sherry Pruitt Award, earning the top prize statewide amongst high school and undergraduate college students for her poem manifest destiny.
The poem, which resulted from Polge’s independent research in the history portion of the Upper School Leadership During Crisis program, paints a vivid and often heartbreaking portrait of the United States’ westward expansion, describing pivotal moments, key policies, and the historical figures who drove them. Co-teachers Dr. Michael McElreath and Palmer Seeley challenged the class to dive deeply into a specific topic and then compellingly and succinctly teach it to their classmates. Polge’s manifest destiny viscerally confronts the reader with the sorrowful turmoil of the Trail of Tears, the bloody reality of the Spanish American War, and the fraying promise of the American dream.
The judges from the Poetry Society were effusive in their praise, favorably comparing Polge’s composition to legendary activist singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Joni Mitchell: “The poet successfully uses this poem as a vehicle to convey a human message; it’s as much a testament to what people could/should do right as it is a caveat of what we do wrong (entitlement, greed, war, want), with dire consequences.”
manifest destiny represents a departure for Polge, who has been composing poetry since 6th grade. “My poetry is very personal; most of them are about my own experiences – an outlet in some sense. Writing this poem – using research — was a really interesting thing to explore because I love history, and I love writing. I love being able to express myself creatively in the classroom.”
It was a love of history and writing and a passion for activism that drew Polge to participate in CA’s Leadership During Crisis program in the first place. “As soon as I read the [program] description, it seemed right up my alley. It seems like we’re seeing a new national or global crisis almost daily. Things happen so quickly that they seem to get brushed under the rug after a few hours. I felt helpless to be able to do anything; As a teenager, I don’t have as many resources as adults do, and it’s harder for me to speak up and get people to take me seriously because of my age.”
During the year-long Leadership During Crisis course, students consider the many dimensions of leadership: what are the traits of a leader who responds effectively to a crisis, what are the hallmarks of a successful response to a crisis, and how do we inspire and instill these traits and skills in our next generation of leaders? Prompted by McElreath and Seeley, they engage in critical analyses of the successes and shortcomings of contemporary and historical American leaders, viewed through the lenses of modern analysis, socio-cultural movements, historical narrative fiction, and philosophy.
For Polge–who also chairs CA’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance and is a member of the North Carolina chapter of the youth climate activist group, Zero Hour– the program has offered an opportunity to better understand how the past has shaped the present. Perhaps most importantly, it has provided opportunities to put that knowledge to good work—to affect meaningful positive change in her communities.
“I really want to make the world better and want to be on the right side of history. But the difficult part is being able to make the most educated choices I can during a crisis.”
The Sherry Pruitt Award surprised Polge, who hopes to spend the summer attending creative writing workshops. “I feel really fortunate. I’m sure there were a lot of other talented writers who entered. It’s a very nice honor.”
Polge will receive a check of $60 for her first-place finish, an NC Poetry Society award certificate, and a copy of the Pinesong Anthology in which her poem will be published. The Sherry Pruitt Award will be officially presented to Polge in a virtual ceremony in early May.