Selling kids on the importance of writing gets harder and harder every year, according to Liberty Middle School language arts teacher Alycia Marcarian. She says it’s true even when the prize is a full scholarship to any university in the state of Florida.
However, Jaylen McCall, 13, might be changing that, at least at Liberty.
The eighth-grader’s 500-word essay about former Black Seminoles leader John Horse was chosen last month as the winner of the middle school division of the Florida State Black History Month Essay Contest.
The prize: a full ride to the Florida university of his choice.
“It’s incredible,” says Jaylen’s father, Jamal. “I had to look at (the prize) a couple of times.”
It was Jamal, who does data and analytics for MetLife, who found out first that his son had won. He says he was in a midday meeting and missed a call. He didn’t recognize the area code, but called back anyway and received the good news.
He was able to keep it a secret while picking Jaylen up, bringing him home to change clothes, and dropping him off at practice for his West Florida Flames club soccer team.
From there, Jamal hustled over to Publix to buy some celebratory cupcakes, and returned to the field.
“I had to play it cool,” Jamal says. “I ended up with a bunch of Valentine’s Day cupcakes and passed them out to a bunch of 13-year-old boys.”
The soccer celebration shocked Jaylen — “I thought it was somebody’s birthday or something” — and he says his teammates have now nicknamed him “Scholar.”
Sadly, plans for Jaylen and Jamal to attend a celebratory Miami Heat vs. Chicago Bulls NBA game had to be scrapped due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Getting Jaylen, who says he enjoys writing, to enter the essay contest wasn’t that tough a chore. He says that he tries to write at least five stories every summer about “interesting and entertaining” things, and finds the craft relaxing and a great stress reliever.
When Alycia told him about the contest, he set out to write about someone whose story hasn’t been widely told. He had read about the Black Seminoles, a group of free blacks and runaway slaves who fought alongside the Seminole Indians during the Seminole Wars, the year before, and that led him to John Horse.
“I wanted to do somebody that nobody has heard of, so they could be interested in it,” Jaylen says.
Once he started researching, he found himself wowed by the John Horse story — a former slave who earned his freedom and went on to help other slaves escape, while wielding a large amount of influence as one of the leaders of the Black Seminoles.
It was a difficult process fitting everything he learned into 500 words. After days of researching, writing and editing, he entertained thoughts giving up.
“But I kept working on it, and when I was done, I was really excited about it,” Jaylen says.
Not only did Jaylen win a scholarship for his essay, he got to visit the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee and received his award from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“There were a lot of other people there and the governor’s mansion was really cool,” Jaylen says. “They also served food. They had some really good pineapple. It was really good.”
Jamal’s essay, and the significant prize that goes with it, is sure to inspire other students to enter next year. He says many of his classmates have already told him that next year they will be participating, and some sixth graders recently told him they were amazed he got to go to Tallahassee and meet the governor.
“It’s a really hard sell, even when the prize is something great like this,” Alycia says. “A lot of kids don’t want to do the extra work or think they won’t win. It’s a challenging task, but writing is something they have to do in college and beyond….luckily we have kids like Jaylen that work hard and do it anyway.”