MERIDEN — Maloney High School senior MacKenzie McCormack deftly wove an extended metaphor, evoking images related to her love for sewing and stitching together fabric, while simultaneously exploring what she called a “hole” in her personal story.
McCormack, weeks away from wrapping up her senior year at Maloney High School, was adopted from an orphanage in Stavropol, Russia at a young age. McCormack told her story through an essay for which she took top honors in this year’s edition of the Hicks Prize Speaking and Writing Contest at Maloney.
Using words instead of thread, McCormack stitched together those two seemingly unrelated topics: her love for sewing and her yearning to know more about her own roots.
McCormack was among seven students who were finalists in the Hicks Prize contests. They tackled a variety of topics in their speeches and essays — ranging from how one develops self-confidence through consistent practice and the eventual mastery of a musical instrument, the pursuit of happiness, the concept of success and failure, along with the healthy expression of emotion.
McCormack evoked imagery immediately in her essay’s opening paragraph: “The needle weaves in and out of the denim of my jeans like the graceful dance of a ballerina. I feel great satisfaction as I stitch the fabric together, closing up the holes,” she wrote.
McCormack described her limited knowledge of her Russian ancestry as a hole in her “own story that may never be fully stitched.”
At the same time, McCormack delved into why she sews.
“When I’m sewing, closing up the holes in the fabric lends a feeling of completion and confidence. Similarly, my adoption and upbringing generate good feelings. My family raised me in a loving home,” she writes, describing that fact as a positive influence.
McCormack and other essay finalists read excerpts from their essays Tuesday night at Maloney’s Parisi Theatre. The contest’s four speech finalists delivered their entire speeches from memory as well.
Students had worked on those essays and speeches since January.
Isabella Valentino took the evening’s top honor in the public speaking category for a speech centered on, and titled after, the question: “What is your why?” It was inspired by the 2016 film “Collateral Beauty, Valentino explained.
“We long for love. We wish we had more time. And we fear death,” Valentino said, later stating, “Love motivates our every action, whether we realize it or not.”
Valentino discussed her own plans upon leaving Maloney to major in economics and minor in political science. She hopes to enter a career in civil service.
Valentino’s speech was similar to her essay, titled “Perspective,” in its exploration of broad questions. Valentino, in her essay, opted to explore the relative insignificance of humanity when compared to the vastness of the universe.
Valentino acknowledged that for some people, the comparison may throw them “into a mild existential crisis.” Valentino wrote that, instead, she finds it comforting.
Rather than approach life with a “nothing matters, why bother” type of attitude, Valentino suggests allowing oneself to exist without the pressure of societal concerns.
“Only then can you free yourself of stress and so become happy making the choices you desire,” she said.
The long-running Hicks contest began 125 years ago, when its namesake, the late state lawmaker and attorney Ratcliffe Hicks, sought to encourage local high school students to pursue the study of English and public speaking.
Platt’s finalists will present their speeches and essays June 2 in the school’s auditorium. It will begin at 7 p.m.
At Maloney, essay finalist Danielle Addy, whose entry came in third place, wrote about how she overcame shyness and developed self-confidence through learning how to play the piano.
Addy detailed how she gradually mastered more complex pieces of music over the course of her years of playing and recital performances. Addy wrote, “Spending thirty minutes at my piano almost every day for the past 11 years gave me the confidence boost that I needed.”
That boost will help as she goes on to college and pursues a career in nursing.
“I will now be comfortable with speaking to new people and interacting with future patients without fear,” Addy wrote.
Classmate George Hall, in an essay titled “Forward Motion” sought to flip the script on the notation of failure. Hall wrote, “We should not define failure as the unsuccessful attempt at action, but when you stop trying to succeed.”
Hall, an athlete who ran on his school’s cross country team, illustrated his point by describing his recent quest to run a race in under 22 minutes. He described the disappointment of staggering to the finish line several minutes past that mark and his determination to improve his finishing time in the next race, two weeks later.
Hall wrote, his time did improve — by more than three minutes.
“Had I reached my goal? Not yet, but it does demonstrate that one never truly fails until they stop trying, and through perseverance and determination, we can accomplish anything,” Hall concluded.
Alizae Galonski pondered the question, “What does it mean to be truly happy,” in a speech she titled “Chasing Happiness.” Happiness, she noted, is not having the ability to buy expensive things.
Galonski used her own family and upbringing in a single-parent household as an example.
“We created our own happiness,” she said.
Classmate Michael Reddick in a speech called “Confidence,” described his own journey overcoming shyness through sports. The speech, he said, was inspired by his late father.
Developing and maintaining confidence is an ongoing struggle, Reddick explained.
He imparted advice to audience members: “It’s better to embrace your flaws rather than try to cover them up.”
Onil Carrion, in a speech he titled “Caged Emotions,” explored the consequences of repressing one’s emotions rather than expressing them.
This, Carrion said, can be detrimental to mental health, as it leads to the ignoring of problems, and to increased stress and anxiety.
He said 20% of men will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetimes.
“There are many many who suffer from anxiety, many men who are hurt and repress their feelings. There are many men who seek help but can’t seem to find it,” Carrion said, calling for changes in societal and cultural norms to break down barriers to “allow the discussion.”
“Embrace emotions, rather than locking them away,” Carrion said.
Reporter Michael Gagne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.