Learncurious is proud to introduce
the winning authors for the second annual competition for the
Phyliss J. McCarthy Scholarship
Excellence in Writing
Winning entries are featured below.
Grand Prize Winner
Class of 2022
I enjoy writing, reading, photography, and spending time in nature. Blending my passions, I strive to capture moments and emotions that go unnoticed without the art of language and photography.
My origin story: the Girl Scout from your troop who painstakingly documented the intricacies of crushed clovers and bubbling brooks in her blue notebook.
Potatoes are boiled until hot to the touch. Aged fingers nimbly peel off their once coarse skin. Stirred with intent, their lumps begin to fade away and become one with the yellow mixture. Tangy and sharp, pickle juice is added to the mix. Hands that tugged a handknit sweater over a stubborn daughter’s blond hair and expertly tended the garden’s enchanting roses, scoop potato salad onto a plate with řísek and sparkling Mattoni water. Slippered toes rush to the dinner table as grandchildren echo thankful sentiments, “Diky, babička.”
Monstera plants bulge from their pots, air roots crawling into the bohemian home. Alphonse Mucha’s “Autumn” peers from behind the plant’s holey leaf as the muse in the painting watches the family devour babička’s tenderly made lunch. I watch as she steadily spreads butter onto rohliky and conversation erupts at the table like bubbles in sparkling water. Czech phrases swirl around the table as if babička’s wrinkled hand was stirring a steamy pot of goulash. Listening actively, I search for a clue. Moving tongues form sounds, which at last form meaning with the word houba. Always hospitable, my family decides to treat us, the visitors, to a mushroom hunt. Languages soon blur as Czech and English blend into a sort of pidgin as my babička busily prepares a classic Czech lunch and utters vague warnings concerning the forest’s chilly autumn breeze. In response, we tie on muddy boots and button vibrant knit sweaters with fumbling fingers. The anticipation of a mushroom hunt is practically tangible. Squishy autumn mud oozes over our thick hiking boots as bits of moss and leaves are ground into the soil below.
Bursting from the mossy earth, baby mushrooms teem with curiosity. Red caps with flecks of white seem benign and unassuming in the afternoon light. Wordlessly acknowledging a shared threat, however, we hurry along the mossy path. Amanita Muscaria: may cause hallucination, nausea, or even death. My babička clicks her tongue disapprovingly at our overly dramatic response and bends down next to the whimsical yet nefarious life form. Lifting up a patch of dark green moss, she discovers a bedla, or parasol mushroom, where all I previously saw was a sea of green surrounding a poisonous mass. Its tan underbelly seamlessly joins the sepia top in an elegant display cut short as babička gingerly plucks the spongy food from its throne of moss. Shaking off the soil, she nestles the new discovery in her wicker basket. Nodding in agreement, we rejoin the well-traveled path. Succulents that align perfectly with the Fibonacci spiral are swirling layers of plump, sage green flesh. Spruce trees filter golden light through their dense needles as a comfortable haze settles over the forest. Stuffed to the brim, our baskets begin to overflow and we begin our journey homeward.
Forests bleed into villages outlined by a silky, apricot sunset. Creamy pinks and oranges are watercolor pigment slowly disseminating over the sky. Chimneys on terracotta tile roofs open their mouths to the heavens, blowing light grey smoke into the moist autumn air. “Hezká obloha,” (beautiful sky) I whisper to my family as we near our home, unique with its pink roses that guard stucco walls. They seemingly bend towards the oak door, like mystical characters beckoning us inside the cozy home. Dried lavender and rosebuds hang above the windowsill and the smell of fresh jam, flour, and yeast intermingle in my babička’s home.
As she hurriedly converses in Czech with my cousins, I attempt to find meaning in the foreign words—slippery toads that escape my grasp. Before I can, however, my cousin, Sara, relays our babička’s meaning.
“She wants to know what your favorite vegetable is so she can add it to dinner,” my cousin Sara shares as our babička busily places Linzer Susenky onto porcelain plates. Topped with powdered sugar, two flower-shaped cookies sandwiched with apricot jam. Munching on the dessert Sara previously helped babička prepare, bits of powdered sugar stick to her blond hair, still sweaty from our laborious hike.
Responding to her vegetable inquiry, I elaborate upon my unnatural love of corn-on-the-cob. My Czech family stares at me before sheepishly turning to Google translate—our Rosetta Stone. In agreement, they continue repeating the phrase, kůň, growing increasingly frustrated.
Must just be how they pronounce corn. I determine, oblivious to the misunderstanding brewing. In hushed tones, a foreign drama, rooted in deep misunderstanding, unfolds before me. Raised eyebrows and shrugs eventually solidify into a shared mission.
“We go to farm, we go there!”
Loading into the sky blue Škoda, we continue on our way as I dreamily stare out the window. Villages bleed into the country-side, where acres of corn stand upright in the Moravian earth, submitting only slightly to the strong gusts of wind. My mom and I look at each other in confusion as we parallel park next to the stocky plants. No supermarket. No vegetable stand. No, my babička has taken us directly to the source—the field itself. She laughs joyously as the wind blows through her coarse gray hair, prompting her to scurry to the corn field. Beckoning for us to follow her into the dense farmland, we plow through the stocks. We descend upon the unsuspecting field like ravenous crows and pull corn from their homes, plucking just enough for dinner. Swirly confusion, the canvas of night resembles a Van Gogh painting as the stars are unveiled from the cover of day.
Once home, my babička begins to prepare our foraged meal by adding salt and bay leaves to the corn and fresh mushroom medley. Slippered toes rush to the dinner table, carrying baskets of rohlik and bottles of Mattoni. My uncle instructs us to dutifully thank babička before announcing “Dobru Chuť!” and taking the anticipated first bite. Barely able to refrain from spitting the corn onto the white porcelain plate, I attempt to conceal a grimace. Bitter and hard, it’s nothing like the soft corn I’m used to. Glancing up, I’m met with contorted faces and the strange, subdued coughs of my family. Noticing we’re not alone in the struggle to stomach the supposed “corn” that tastes more like animal feed, laughter erupts at the table. The suppressed coughs and pained expressions dissipate as we realize something has gone horribly wrong.
Apparently, corn is grown in Czechia for the sole purpose of feeding livestock...not people. Thus, there has been no efforts by farmers to cultivate corn that tastes appealing. So, we did have kůň, or horse food. Ever practical, babička resolves that the cooked corn should be fed to the family chickens who would appreciate the expertly spiced and prepared corn more than we ever could.
Laughing about the absurdity of dinner, we reminisce over the day and make plans for the morning. Handmade candles flicker as a cool night breeze flutters through the lacy curtains that drape the large window. Whispers of smoke intermingle with the remnants of creamy rose petals as a pleasant scent exudes from the melting wax and fuses with the dissipating remnants of our pidgin language, lovingly unique to our small community.
This was the first time I remember experiencing miscommunication with my Czech family. Extremely young, I’d only visited them a few times before. Through this experience I learned a lot about my ability to look beyond the obvious differences that separate cultures. I now cherish the skill that a lifetime of reading between the lines and relying on context has given me. After all, interacting with individuals from a different country is difficult territory.
"How would you describe yourself?”
Unlike my first-grade classmates, I did not hesitate, I already knew my answer. Memories of what I had discovered the summer before led to an incorrigible grin, and I responded with pride, “Jupiter and the Galilean moons…”
I often questioned the belief that stars among the night sky all had the same shape—five vertices and five intersecting edges. Fortunately for me, this enigma was resolved with a telescope, a gift from my parents after months of begging. Unable to contain my desire for the truth, I briskly removed the cap and pointed the aperture toward the brightest dot in the sky. All I saw, however, was complete darkness and kaleidoscopic blobs. I sighed with disappointment. It was not until an accidental turn of the focus knob that I saw it. I counted in shock, “One, two, three, four, five.” I had discovered something new for myself and a sense of accomplishment swelled within me.
The five specks I saw that night were Jupiter and its four moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. I perceived that they each had their own unique characteristics or “personalities.” I began to connect the adjectives I developed for them to my own personality.
“I would now like to honor myself with the title—Jupiter enthusiast.”
Designated with the title “weirdo” on the first day of first grade, it was clear that my words and ideas were incomprehensible to my classmates. Chit-chatting about favorite cartoons and after-school adventures was never a part of my day; no one was interested in playing with someone who thought differently.
Io, under a beautiful facade, bubbles with active volcanism and is blemished with black dots. Imperfect. Likewise, approaching other people became a personal challenge because I could not discuss “normal” topics. The smile on my face competed with the bubbling anger and vexation by my exclusion. I began to hide from people, as Io hides behind the shadows of Jupiter.
Europa, with an icy cover, is calm and undisturbed. Despite chasing a sense of belonging, I found myself daily searching for Jupiter among the night sky, because it was the only time I could be serene and find peace. As I grew, however, this routine transitioned into searching the Internet for answers of “How to Be a Normal Kid.” My nightly escapades were soured by hour-long lectures from parents and teachers about how I should learn to emulate others’ interests.
Ganymede, nothing but a big chunk of rock, is barren. Endless hours spent learning how to think and act “normally” had paid off; I made genuine friends. Although sometimes I felt a sense of acceptance, my desire to unpack the languishing telescope in the back of my closet was crippling. After all the emotional conflict between what others wanted me to be and who I wanted to become, I became lost in a maze of self-doubt, unsure of what to feel, numb.
Callisto, the colorful “ugly duckling moon.” Even after years of socially integrating, I still found myself searching for who I was. Felicitously, this question was answered at a symposium at the Griffith Observatory with like-minded teenagers, which brought out my ideas unabashedly. When I heard my name announced as the winner, I was elated by the sense of belonging. I experienced a moment of pure relief in having found myself again. Although I had stowed away my passion, this contest brought back my swirling colors.
Today, I chase my passion and I do not intend to lose it again. When I pick up the same telescope and aim it to the brightest point in the sky, I remember that Jupiter would have become a star itself were it not for the pull of the Sun. Perhaps Jupiter has always been compelling me to become who I need to be, not to be influenced by another Sun but rather flourish into my own star.
Class of 2021
Notes from Jacky:
I am a student attending Cal Poly SLO majoring in Aerospace Engineering. I am also a dreamer, creator, and space enthusiast. My creativity and passion for the Universe inspire and motivate me to express myself and my interests to others.
Class of 2022
To all the writers who feel as if they've lost their spark: There are still words you need to say.
Notes from Sarah:
Hi! I'm Sarah and I'm a rising senior in high school. I spend my free time reading, writing, listening to podcasts, and dancing. I hope to become an English professor and a published author!
(place that inspires nostalgia)
(character from mythology or folklore)
(form of currency)
(type of body of water)
(subject in school)
(style of market)
(item found on a nature hike)
(positive personality trait)
(number between 1934-2019)
(type of logical fallacy)
(type of animal)
(plural proper noun)
(verb ending in -ating)
(mode of transportation)
(plural noun that ends with an apostrophe)
Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood
(random word you like the sound of)
December 16, 1964
Rose stood on the platform of the train station, boots slick and glinting from the morning’s rain. It always rained in the city. Her mother told her it was the moon weeping because she could not be with her lover, the ocean, and that with every tear, the ocean grew larger, until one day they would finally meet again.
Rose just called it rain.
It had left a puddle on the pavement in front of where she stood, like a malleable mirror she could break with the tip of her toe at any moment. She examined the Rose in the puddle. Rose in the puddle examined her back. Like Narcissus, she stared and stared until a drop of water broke her unwavering gaze. She shivered as she lifted her head then rested it on the arm of the woman next to her.
Rose held her mother’s soft hand in her own. It wrapped around hers almost completely, a warm blanket blocking her fingers from the bitterly chilled air. She shivered again. The cold had permeated her fleece-lined coat.
Just as she began to tug at her mother’s arm, begging for warmth, a deep rumble bellowed from within the tunnel. Her mother stood, and Rose followed suit. They moved in synchrony to the edge of the platform.
Rose peered down the railway tunnel in anticipation. Immediately, a rush of air swept across her cheeks and the train careened to a stop. Each door passed in a blur, their handles’ luminous silver color creating a light show across the station. At last, the train was still. Rose’s reflection greeted her once more in the polished metal of the door. She could see the pale pink of her cheeks, matching that of her mother’s ironed slacks.
They stepped through the train car’s open doors, which hissed to a close behind them, and proceeded to the back of the train. Rose took the window seat, her mother the aisle. The train departed and the station disappeared, along with the rest of the world.
September 7, 1968
Rose sat cross-legged on the seat of the train. Her new school uniform made her skin crawl and itch as if dozens of microscopic insects had formed their colonies within her sleeves. She tugged the wool off over her head, disturbing her plaits in the process. Rose’s mother had done them this morning. Each of her slender fingers carefully navigated through Rose’s quickly growing hair, weaving them together in ways Rose couldn’t fathom.
She had tried to imitate the motions before. In front of her mother’s vanity, she had looped the hair around itself how she thought her mother would have. Nevertheless, her hands were too small and her fingers too short yet to form the plaits, and her hands soon became confined within the strands. Her hair had become a finger trap and she was caught in its clutches. Each exit for her fingers seemed to be a red herring, leading her further and further into the tangles. She’d begun to thrash and pull, fingers and hair in perfect competition, until her mother heard her from the kitchen and came to her rescue. She detangled Rose’s hair, nimbly as always.
Rose found herself passing her hair between her fingertips. Her mother, seated next to her, brushed her hand away from her face. She removed the woolen sweater from Rose’s lap and folded it carefully, placing it in her satchel. Rose curled up in her seat. She rested her head on her mother’s shoulder and watched as the English countryside rolled by outside her window.
Miniature trees and toy-sized cattle passed. It reminded Rose of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. She’d traded a sparkling new euro for a recording of the American show at the charity shop earlier that week. The theme song played back in her head in time with each passing house. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
Rose drifted off to the smell of her mother’s hair, soft and sweet like magnolias, and the bumps of the tracks lulled her into a deeper slumber. The theme song ran on a loop in her dreams.
Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?
March 24, 1972
Rose laid across the seats, head rested in her mother’s lap. Tiny shivers raced across her scalp as her mother ran her fingers through Rose’s hair. She’d learned about electrical impulses in class today; The way every part of the body was connected, how each fingertip was tied to each eyelash was tied to each part of the brain. She couldn’t help but imagine that the connections ran past her own body, that there must be a series of nerves between her mother’s fingers and her own scalp.
She shrugged off the thought.
Clasped in her hands was a worn copy of a nonfiction book on marsupials she’d checked out earlier that day. A wide-eyed opossum studied her from the page, clinging to a branch. Its eyes seemed to extend past the page like a 3-D movie. Rose returned the expression.
She flipped the page to a new chapter on kangaroos. They hold their young in pouches, like the other marsupials. When they mate, though, the males compete for the females, who can mate with many males in their lifetimes. Rose wondered if they were ever loyal to one another. Did the father stay with the mother while she carried her young? Did he leave her afterwards? Would he recognize his child if they were to meet five years in the future?
She kept reading.
The pages passed between her fingers rapidly, facts about koalas and wombats and wallabies committed to memory one by one. A page slipped through her fingers, and a tear slipped down her cheek. It slid off her jaw and onto her mother’s skirt. An odd sort of blurriness had come over her brain.
She closed the book and placed it in her school bag then turned over to her side and nestled into her mother’s lap. Her mother leaned over and pressed a kiss onto Rose’s forehead, and then it made sense.
Humans weren’t all like kangaroos. Sometimes they stayed.
July 2, 1984
Rose stood, hand wrapped around the metal pole as the train hurtled forward. She hastily tapped her high-heeled shoe on the carpet. It was patterned with interlocking geometric shapes, the kind your eyes could get lost in if you looked for too long. Rose thought that perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if she were to get lost in it. Maybe she could live in the maze of hexagons and triangles and build a home in the crevices where they met.
The announcer's voice boomed over the speaker, an indistinct cacophony that filled Rose’s ears with static. She sighed and exited the geometric fantasy.
The rest of the passengers seemed to be unphased. Across from her, a man with cerulean hair was deep in sleep, his quiet snores blending with the rest of the world’s noise. Beside her, a woman painted her nails. The pungent chemical scent permeated the stagnant air in the train. Rose breathed it in and examined her own fingernails, a chipped vermillion that she couldn’t recall painting.
She did her best to ignore the less than perfect manicure and reached into her bag. Wedged between Kleenexes and breath mints, she found a dark mascara. Without a mirror, she did her best to drag the brush through her eyelashes. She’d learned to avoid smearing it on her eyelids after practicing on the train to school during her university days. Still, she knew there would be a small streak of black across her eyelid when she checked in the mirror. To her, it was rather ignominious, to have spent years perfecting the skill but still be inept.
She wished her mother could be there to squeeze her hand, wordlessly tell her that she looked perfect, and make the train move faster with just her presence. But she couldn’t be there, and Rose would have to tell herself she looked perfect.
She placed the mascara tube back into her bag and replaced her hand to its position on the pole’s cool metal exterior. The doors would open into the station soon, but for now, she could return to her home between shapes in the carpet.
November 30, 2006
Rose gazed out of the window of the train, watching the fields and sky pass by and fade into the distance. It was the same view she’d watched so many years ago with her head resting on her mother’s shoulder. They’d made their way into London almost daily until, one day, it was only Rose sitting in the window seat, the neighboring seat left empty.
Rose wrapped her arms around herself. She wore a lilac sweater, the cashmere caressing her skin, unlike the uniform she’d once wore. It wrapped around her like a warm embrace. How nice it was to be held, even if it was just by a sweater.
She’d found it at her grandmother’s house, where she and her mother had stayed briefly while Rose finished university. It was a miracle that it still fit her after all these years. Even after countless washes, it still smelled of magnolia. The same sweet magnolia that her mother wore as perfume lingered on the sweater’s fibers, leaving traces of itself wherever Rose went.
She inhaled the scent softly and closed her eyes.
The train rolled to a stop, and Rose could hear the doors hiss open. Still, she kept her eyes closed.
When she knew she was the last soul left seated, she opened her eyes, stood, and made her way to the open doors. Rain was falling on the platform, creating a faint chatter. Each drop ricocheted off the pavement.
Rose stepped off the train and began home.
Thank you and congratulations to our 2021 prizewinners!