Batrek Yassa. The Unwavering Son. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Art Portfolio.

In this segment of our Eyes on the Prize series, we would like to introduce you to another pair of 2012 Portfolio Gold winners: Batrek Yassa and Leah Lierz.

Batrek, 17, is an artist and a senior at Jersey City Arts High School Program in Jersey City, NJ. Art has served as a form of comfort during a difficult time in his life:

I had tasted, during the fall of my fourteenth birthday, a bitter fruit. Barren in taste, sharp in texture; it pressed on the buds of my tongue and scraped the walls of my throat as it followed gravity’s downward pull, anchoring itself to the base of my stomach. Sweet is the apple, sharp is the lime, but bitter is the fruit of fate, and it is the latter of three that had cursed me with its tang. Fourteen years had proved inadequate in ultimately arming me against the fates, for it was in my sophomore year of high school that my mother learned of the silent plague swelling within her. Diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, her muscles, which had once throbbed with vigor, were now fated to wither, parched in the drought of pestilence.

Within me boiled a red-hot rage, and as I sat brooding over my misfortunes, I felt the fire of that rage crack the very surface of my skin. However when I sat with a pencil in hand and dragged its peak across the tooth of the paper, I thought of my mother’s fingers and how they were unable to willingly touch tips let alone grasp a pencil. It was at that moment that I felt the grace of silence take stead of my anger for I felt not the weight of my burdens, but the weight of the lines, which I had strewn across the page. I do not create art for myself, though I do enjoy the purging qualities of the artistic process; I do not create art for my audience, though I do enjoy the aspect of forcing them to confront their own humanity; I do not create art for college admissions, though I do enjoy acceptance and accept rejection also.  No, I create art because I refuse to accept my mother’s fate, for although her body has betrayed her, my hands never will, and with them I will mock the fates.

Leah, also 17, attends South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, SC. Writing is a way for her to understand the world when it becomes overwhelming:

I write because I love to do it. I love it when I’m able to put my feelings into words and I love it when other people can relate to something I’ve written. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you’ve affected someone with something you’ve written—be it with humor or poignancy or anything else. Writing puts the world in my perspective. In this way, it makes it easier for me to understand things. There are a lot of reasons why I write, but it’s mostly because I don’t feel right when I don’t. Writing’s just something I have to do.


Here’s an excerpt from Leah Lierz’s personal memoir, Protection, part of her Award-winning writing portfolio.

My parents moved us to Georgia so they could teach at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center or, for short, FLETC (rhymes with Betsy). FLETC is to most every law enforcement agency what Quantico is to the FBI. Secret Service, ATF, Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals—FLETC trains them all. It’s like college for Feds. My parents first met there when they were both training to be ATF agents. They decided to return so they could teach new agents about warrants and how to properly raid a place without destroying evidence or getting shot. My father was a firearms expert there and my mother specialized in undercover work. Where we lived, there were only two viable occupations: FLETC or tourism. A study conducted by Georgia Tech identified FLETC as the largest employer in all of Glynn County. Parents, like mine, taught there. The center hired locals to participate in training exercises and scenarios. So basically what that meant was I resided in a town filled with cops. Everyone in my neighborhood worked in law enforcement. But an island teeming with Feds and their families never seemed that strange to me. It felt the same as anywhere else in the world. Just safer. Except according to my mother.

I wasn’t allowed to hang out with kids in my neighborhood. As I rode in the back of my mom’s massive Lincoln Navigator, I watched the other children playing in the streets or walking from one house to another. I begged my mom over and over again to let me play with them. But she said being outside without an adult was dangerous. I chalked up her nervousness to the things she had seen in her line of work, the worst-case scenarios. This was the woman who taught courses called “Safety and Survival,” “Undercover Work in Narcotics,” and “Self Defense” every day. In her eyes, she was the only one who could keep me and my sister unharmed. But now that I think about it, maybe she was.

On Job Shadowing Day at school, every kid had to go to work with a parent or another member of the community for the day, then write a report about it. At most schools, this would mean a variety of interesting jobs. Shane’s dad is a mechanic. Camille’s mom is a beautician. Things like that. But at Oglethorpe Point Elementary School, almost every kid ended up at FLETC that day.

By some stroke of luck, the day I had to shadow my parents coincided with Pepper Spray and Taser Day. To complete training, every FLETC student had to spray and be sprayed, Tase and be Tased, at least once. In the early afternoon, my 110 pound, 5’1 mother took her students and me out to a giant field surrounded by trees on all sides. I watched as, scattered across the field, pairs of grown men pepper-sprayed each other. Some sprayed with hesitation and some without mercy. I heard the cries and curses of men crackling in my ears. It was a battle. A few fell to their knees in the field. Others kept going, the pre-conceived and unspoken agreement to attack one another still intact. My mother told me to pass out the water bottles for the men, desperate to wash the pepper out of their eyes. “Don’t pay attention to the bad words. Oh, and help me pass out these Tasers,” she said, handing me one of the heavy boxes at her feet. “Just make sure they know you’re there. They can’t see really well, so they might smack you by accident if you aren’t loud enough.” I walked around handing the crying men their Tasers. I stomped my feet so they would hear me coming and not punch me in the face.

It seems strange to me now that my mother never seemed to be afraid of setting me in front of about fifty, panicky, adult men. Especially when she was scared of almost everything else in the world that I could’ve possibly come into contact with. A few years ago, though, she came to my school to tell the kids about her work. That’s when she said something that I had never heard before. Something that made me understand why she’s so protective. Apparently, when my sister and I were still very young, when we lived in Kansas, my mother did some undercover work. It was nothing out of the ordinary. She hung around with this guy and his buddies for while, collecting evidence, before she pulled together enough to arrest him on. After he was taken into custody, he told her that he had been suspecting her for a while. He said that one of his “colleagues” had been instructed to tail her and to kidnap her children if anything happened to him. My sister and I were too young to know anything was happening. A couple of my parents’ agent-friends picked us up from our house and took us to theirs. Other agents took up posts near our home to watch for the man’s friend. My mom, I suspect, was hysterical, but we didn’t get to see her. In the end, nothing came of it. The man was probably just bluffing. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have any effect on my mother. We moved to Georgia soon after. She began to draw my sister and me in closer and closer, to tell us about all the dangers of the world, to try to make sure nothing ever happened to us. But maybe she was right to do that. Because it never did.

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