In 2005 Doug and Mary Austin launched their literacy promotion project at Idyllwild Middle School, the Charles Dickens Essay and Poster Contest. Contestants this year were asked to read “Oliver Twist” and then memorialize the Dickens novel and their experience in reading it with either an essay or a poster.
This year’s first prize winners, Ben Cruz for his poster and Ben Goulding for his essay, each received cash awards of $100. Cruz, whose work was previously exhibited at an Idyllwild School art exhibit in January, is, according to Austin, a very promising artist who has a full scholarship to Idyllwild Arts next year. The second place poster winner, Audrey Carver, also was featured at the January art show. She won second place last year as well in the poster contest. Besides their artistic talent, Cruz and Carver’s writing tied for second place in the essay contest.
Austin, and now deceased wife Mary, believed that the novels and stories of Dickens, critically acclaimed as one of the finest writers in the English language, would introduce the drama and nuance of beautifully crafted language to young students. It would also, said Austin, expose students to core Dickens themes of social justice, abhorrent conditions of child labor in the England of Dickens’ day, and portray the hardships borne by the poor, the consequences of a highly stratified class system that then existed in Britain. Benjamin Goulding’s winning essay, “What Causes Crime?” draws cogent parallels between the novel’s character Fagin’s recruiting a gang of child pickpockets in mid-19th century London and contemporary U.S. urban street gang leaders recruiting neighborhood youth with promises of money and a “family” that will look after them.
Here are some excerpts from Goulding’s essay: “Have you ever wondered what causes crime? Crime has always been a sad part of our society, and I think it has to do with class and environment. … Criminal organizations took advantage of poor helpless people like Oliver [Twist] who were at the edges of their ropes. This same thing still happens today with gangs in poor neighborhoods. They take kids in at a young age and turn them into heartless killers.”
Goulding notes that even if one is born poor, and like Oliver tossed in with criminal types, they can still evade criminal corruption brought about by social influences that often disproportionately affect the poor. He continues, “Both Dickens and Oliver were poor, and yet neither of them was corrupted by society. … I think Dickens wanted people to realize the problems of the lower class while giving them someone, like Oliver, to root for. … In the end, Oliver is too innocent to be corrupted by Fagin and Sikes. I think Dickens didn’t have Fagin corrupt Oliver because he wanted people to know that the human spirit can make it out of any number of poor circumstances.”
The full list of winners, all eighth graders, includes, in the poster section: Benjamin Cruz, first place, Audrey Carver, second place, Micah Hitchcock, also second place, and three third places winners, Sable Summerfield, Yesenia Deniz and Yasmin Morales; in the essay section: Benjamin Goulding, first place, Audrey Carver, second place, Benjamin Cruz, also second place, and three third place winners, Addison Wilson, Monique Grover and Elias Wilke.