Meggie: Fifth grader breaks bullying barrier
Raeya Ponugoti has recently become an instant celebrity.
"Some people are just clapping when I walk in [to a room]," the fifth grader from Park Tudor School in Indianapolis laughed.
Why Raeya's sudden rise to fame? She's been announced as the grand-prize winner in the fourth- through eighth-grade division of the 2012 Breaking Barriers Essay Contest sponsored by Scholastic and Major League Baseball.
"The whole concept of Breaking Barriers is to help kids understand that barriers or obstacles are a part of life -- that we all have them to different degrees, but we have to find ways to manage to get over those hills," said Sharon Robinson, the daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson and champion of the Breaking Barriers contest that began 16 years ago. "Life is hills and valleys, and we have to get over those hills."
Raeya, whose passion is dance, chose to write about being bullied at her dance class.
"At first, I didn't know what to write about," Raeya admits. "I was probably going to write about something really small. Then I started thinking deeper and outside of school more, and I thought about bullying at my dance class."
In her winning essay, Raeya wrote: "In my dance class, I'm very quiet. I don't talk a lot because I'm scared that if I say something wrong, the children who I dance with will torture me. This is where I have to use my values. ... I feel like they think I am a weak twig who they can push around all evening. Dance is the best thing ever, being bullied while doing something that you love is the worst."
Raeya's teacher at Park Tudor, Michele Modglin, said she always noticed something special about Raeya as a student.
"She is a little quiet in class, but if you put her in a group and you ask her to talk, all of this personality just bubbles out of her. I saw a lot of personality come through in her writing -- she has a great voice when she writes, and she is being authentic and true. She is transparent when she puts words on paper," Modglin said of her prize-winning pupil.
Modglin first learned of the Breaking Barriers Essay Contest last year, but it was too close to the deadline to have her students enter. She was eager to make a lesson out of it with her students this year.
"We followed the lessons that [educational program] Scholastic had sent us, and we took Jackie Robinson's profile and said, 'Let's look at where he connected the nine values to his story. Where do you see a connection?' Everyone wrote their essays and it was their choice as to whether or not they submitted their essay into the contest," said Modglin.
Raeya was one of the students who decided to submit her essay. Her Breaking Barriers journey started in a hurry.
"Raeya had not finished her essay yet and I had them all in an envelope, addressed and ready to go," Modglin recalled. "Raeya had stayed after school to finish typing hers. She was trying to come up with a title and she had two friends staying with her after school while she finished it. Her friends helped her come up with the title 'Dancing Colors.' She said that was perfect, printed it out and we put it in the envelope. We didn't have a chance for any last minute read-overs. We sealed it and sent it in."
"I kind of just wanted to see what would happen -- what the results would be if I entered," said Raeya.
Meanwhile, "Dancing Colors" was wowing Sharon Robinson and the panel of judges.
"Her [essay] was so poignant," Robinson said. "What was so tremendous about her attitude was that she recognized it, did something about it, and she continued to do the thing that she loved and didn't let the bullying stop her. It had a maturity about it that felt older than a fifth-grader."
Modglin said she got a call from Scholastic the day Park Tudor got back from its Spring Break. From there, the rest was history.
"She was recognized at an assembly at school -- about what a big writing contest this was and what an honor it was that she won," Modglin said. "The whole school was proud of her. It was a great moment. When Sharon Robinson called to congratulate her, Raeya was really nervous because she had never talked to a celebrity before. I told her, 'Now you are a celebrity -- people want to talk to you!' "
In the coming days, Raeya's class will get a visit from Robinson, as well as class sets of Robinson's book, "Promises to Keep", and Breaking Barriers T-shirts. Raeya and Modglin each will be presented with a laptop computer, and Raeya and one of her parents will travel to the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City.
Raeya and Modglin are in a state of disbelief.
"Every time she looked at me, we'd have an eye-contact moment -- I would just mouth to her: 'You're the grand-prize winner, you're the grand-prize winner!' And she would just smile," Modglin said.
Congratulations, Raeya. You're the grand-prize winner!
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.