By Natalie Mack

Nantucket High School (NHS) freshman, 13-year-old Anna Popnikolova, has been named a runner up in the New York Times’ second annual Personal Narrative Writing Contest, the youngest of 12 to achieve such recognition. 

This contest was open to all middle and high school students from ages 11 to 19. They were invited to “…tell a short story about a meaningful life experience in 600 words or fewer,” the NYT stated in their contest announcement article. Students could submit their short stories as early as October 13th, 2020, and no later than November 17th, 2020. In some cases, middle and high school teachers submit a batch of their student’s essays to the New York Times. This allows students to practice writing narrative essays, while also getting a chance to win a contest. This year, Anne Phaneuf, a 25-year English and Journalist teacher decided to do just that. “There are 28 students in my Journalism class, mostly what we do is look at articles in the news. I really wanted the kids to have the experience of writing something of their own. That’s why I like this narrative writing contest, it is so open, they can tell any story. It’s really important that kids know they all have stories to tell,” Phaneuf stated. 

Of the stories Phaneuf sent into the contest, some were written by eager and excited students, who wanted to win the contest. On the other hand, there were some students who just simply completed it, because it was a class assignment. “I didn’t really think I’d be a finalist, but I really did enjoy it once I was writing into the prompt, because there was a lot to choose from and I felt [the] prompt was pretty relevant to my life, currently. I only really did it because it was an assignment, but I ended up liking it a lot. I didn’t think I would [be a finalist], but it was still a nice little writing assignment,”  NHS senior and journalism student Christian Mack explained.

On January 6th, 2021, just over a month after submissions were due, current NHS freshman Anna Popnikolova received an email notifying her that her story was selected as a finalist for the contest. “I was a little bit shocked when I read the email—mainly because I hadn’t been expecting that outcome of the competition,” she said. Popnikolova is a freshman this year at Nantucket High School. She is a student in Phaneuf’s semester-long Journalism class, so her story was submitted to the New York Times along with her fellow classmates. Similar to how Mack felt about the contest, Popnikolova felt “I didn’t think I actually had much of a chance, because the paper I wrote had been just for the class assignment. It wasn’t exactly a serious submission.” It seems as though both students weren’t expecting much out of a simple writing assignment their Journalism teacher gave them. But little did Popnikolova know, it would be so much more. 

The contest guidelines were very vague. The instructions were to “…tell a short story about a meaningful life experience.” These guidelines could mean many different things to the contestants. Popnikolova’s, included below, describes a time she was in Bulgaria, visiting family. “It’s a beautiful story…it has such a specific point of view…it is a sophisticated piece because she has two different points of view. She created her mother, wanting her to have her want to remember something. She captures something that is true of all people. The desire to want to pass on a tradition, but the child not grasping what the parent wants. That yearning to remember. I think Anna really captures a beautiful and American experience.” Phaneuf stated.

“It tastes like a memory. I may not remember anything from this country…but the food…I remember the food. So, I nod and offer a smile…” Popnikolova wrote in her essay titled “That’s the Thing—I Don’t Remember.” 

Popnikolova received an email on Thursday, January 21, 2021, from the New York Times, notifying her that her story was promoted from finalist to runner-up. She along with 12 other students from schools all over the country had the honor of being runners-up in the contest, Popnikolova being the youngest of the 13 students. This being the second-annual New York Times narrative writing contest, Popnikolova is now the first Nantucket High School student to be a finalist and achieve the position of the runner-up in this contest, at just thirteen years old. If you are interested in reading Popnikolva’s full narrative, it can be found below. 

That’s the Thing – I Don’t Remember

“Do you remember this place? We used to go here.”

I do not. I do not remember.

“I do! I remember this!”

But I don’t.

My mother smiles. She takes a picture of the water fountain with her phone, me next to it. My sisters run around, shouting about how much they love Bulgaria, and how they never want to leave. My dad stares out at the bridge crossing the river, contemplating going fishing later that evening.

We walk through the streets in the nighttime, home from a friend’s house.

Apparently, I’ve met this friend before. I cannot remember. I know her name, I’ve been told her name. But I do not remember her round face, her flushed cheeks, and the cigarette smoke in her hair. I don’t remember her husband, who leans against a cooler, and picks at his teeth with a toothpick. I do not remember their sons, one of which offers to teach me how to play Fortnite. 

They ask me questions—what grade am I in? Do I like school? What do I like doing? Do I remember Bulgaria?

And of course, I say, I am in 8th grade. Sure, I like school. It’s school, though. They laugh, nod as if they understand. Nod as if they remember school, the same way I remember Bulgaria.

 “It’s been years,” on both sides, excuses for the faded memories, excuses trying to brush over the assumption that the memories may not have been important enough to remember. I like reading and writing. I like drawing. I take dance and ceramics. And of course I remember Bulgaria! I may have been little, but I have memories here and there!

It is like food for their ears. Grandparents from Skype calls, who look weird in person. Aunts that I’ve never met before and have to pretend I recognize. Uncles and cousins and people.

People whose faces I have only ever seen in pictures. People who smell like smoke and food that tastes like home.

An apartment that I do not remember, the only lingering memory I have is of the smell, something between tobacco and rosewater soap. 

It’s strange, all my memories more like a scene from a film, where I see myself as a character, then flashbacks, nothing ever in first-person.

We’re still walking from this friend’s house, and stop at a street food vendor. It’s a small stall, lights beaming to contrast the darkness. It’s still open at 1 o’clock in the morning. My parents chatter about memories they have. From way back when, and they seem so happy that I’m scared they’ll never want to go home. They will remember and they will want to stay.

We buy Bulgarian food. And as we walk through the streets, my parents share their nostalgia. An old high school, old apartments, places to hang out.

We pass a building, somewhere I’ve surely never been.

“Do you remember?” My mother asks, gesturing towards this unfamiliar place. She offers me a piece of her food, a slab of baked dough with cheese in the center. It’s called a “milenka”, a name that seems it belongs more to a person than an edible object.

I take the food, and eat it. 

It tastes like a memory. I may not remember anything from this country… but the food… I remember the food. So, I nod and offer a smile.

“Of course, I remember.”

3 thoughts on “NHS student, Veritas writer, is NYT essay contest runner-up

  1. This young girl is a writer. More than that, she is a careful observer and honest about her observations. She has more than a little compassion for her elders and their feelings. I would like to see more of her work in the years to come. She has a story to tell.

  2. I am a retired writer/editor who was interviewed by Anne for a study on elderly Nantucket citizens and their responses to the 2021 Pandemic. I have also read drafts of other works by this awesome, young talent. She is the real thing, I am confident she will leave her imprint in the world of literature.

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