Elias Sekkal, 11, displays the official citation he received in the Letters about Literature contest. His entry was one of 15 honors letters selected from more than 4,100 submissions.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In Elias Sekkal's own words, the separation of his parents caused him to crawl "into the deepest pit in the underworld."
Elias couldn't comprehend the reasons why he and his mother, Lamia, moved to a different home and why he had lost all contact with his father. The stress significantly hampered his everyday life; he had trouble making friends at school and communicating with his teachers, and he found little joy in the simple pleasures that many kids embrace.
The separation occurred about a year ago, and Lamia Sekkal saw her son battle anxiety and depression.
"He was down on himself. He had low self-esteem," she said. "He wasn't getting in trouble at school, but he was just not communicating well with his peers. He was more withdrawn."
But Elias, 11, found a way to express his feelings. And on May 11 of this year, he was one of 15 Level I (Grades 4-6) students in Massachusetts to be honored at the State House in Boston during the annual Letters About Literature ceremony. Elias received two awards to mark his place in the top 1 percent selected from the more than 4,100 letters submitted.
A student in Linda Bernard's fifth-grade class at Pine Cobble School, Elias scripted a letter to Natalie Babbitt, author of "The Search for Delicious." The book had a profound impact on Elias, exposing him to the power of words, which helped him come to terms with the recent hardships at home.
"It taught me to understand about how life works, and that you have to respect everything," Elias said. "I thought I could really relate to it through the way that my life has been. I learned from this book how to comprehend what's happening to me and how to accept it better."
The past year has been a drastic transformation for Elias. The boy who once struggled mightily with relaying his thoughts and emotions is now brimming with confidence, engaging with classmates and not afraid to speak his mind — whether its orally or through his writing.
Bernard's curriculum puts focus on the importance of writing and communicating; she assigns multiple projects throughout the year which allow her students to spend several hours per day crafting their own thoughts and words. Through the Letters About Literature contest, her students were asked to choose a book that "provided them insight into themselves or into how they view the world."
Pictured is the building which houses the fifth-grade classroom at Pine Cobble School, located at 163 Gale Road.
When Sekkal was still searching for a book, Bernard recommended The "Search For Delicious," which was released in 1969. The text is a fictional tale about a conflict that arises within a kingdom over the definition of the word "delicious." Every character has his or her own idea of what constitutes a "delicious" food, and the message is that some things in life aren't meant to have a clear-cut answer, and the pursuit of the indefinable can lead to even more conflict.
"I thought that it was a different type of book that had a really important moral," Elias said. "It teaches you that words have different meanings, and I thought it was very powerful."
Elias wasn't the first award-winner to come out of Bernard's class; two of her students received honorable-mention accolades at the State House in 2009.
She steered Elias toward "The Search for Delicious" because of the difficulties he had endured during the last year. Bernard said that Elias is "philosophical," which made Babbitt's story a suitable fit.
Elias' teacher was hardly the only person at Pine Cobble impressed with his letter. Last Friday, several of his classmates voiced their admiration:
"We knew he would win. Everyone in the classroom knew he would win," Hayden Gillooly said. "He got so personal in his letter. It makes me look at Elias in a different way now."
"It was really inspiring," Jackie Rich added.
Lamia Sekkal said Pine Cobble has been a healthy environment for Elias during the last year. She praised Bernard's ability to motivate her students and quench their thirsts for learning.
When Elias was coping with instability within the family, he found a home within the classroom.
The certificate of honor Sekkal received on May 11 at the State House in Boston.
"It's a safe place for him," Lamia said. "For him, it's another family. He has had an excellent year this year. He pulled himself up, moved past his personal anger and focused on himself and his work.
"He was able to go back to a normal life and find his dreams again."
Elias is quite busy when he's not in the classroom. He plays lacrosse at Pine Cobble and he's a member of the Northern Berkshire YMCA Betta swim team. On the weekends — when he's not out socializing with friends — he keeps a journal, reads magazines and makes time to peruse through a newspaper on Sundays. He even catches a TV show every once and a while, leaning more toward programs like "House" and "Law & Order: SVU" because they spur more thought from the viewer.
The power of words helped Elias emerge from the "underworld" he was trapped in last year, and they also earned him a trip to the State House. In his letter to Babbitt, Elias detailed his journey:
"I had no friends, and I became irritable and defiant," he wrote. "I had no sports or hobbies. Then slowly I sprouted my wings and found the light in my darkness. I soared."
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It is nice to see a school environment that accepts and inspires a child who is experiencing difficulties. I could see this same child, sadly, not doing so well in another school that may not care or stereotype him as a troubled kid coming from a single parent family.