Three sophomores at are competing for the same prize.
Each student is a 10th-grade finalist in the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage Stop the Hate: Youth Speak Out essay contest. And they've swept the category. More than 1,800 students from 126 public and private schools across seven counties submitted essays this year, and Heights students landed the top three spots among 10th-graders.
But Maryam Assar, Adrian Berr and Corinne Sinclair don't see it as a competition.
"I think that it proves that we have quite an amazing English teacher, and that we’re all very lucky to somehow end up getting this," said Corinne, 15, giving credit to English teacher Donna Feldman. "I actually have English with Adrian so we're both kind of like, 'Woah, you won?' We’re both really excited for each other."
The students and other essay finalists will be honored Sunday at during the awards ceremony. Students in sixth through 10th grade will receive $300 for first place, $200 for second and $100 for third. Ten juniors and seniors compete for sizable scholarships — the grand prize is $50,000.
Students from Heights High wrote about bullying, but each essay topic was very different.
Update: Corrine won first place and received a $300 prize, Adrian placed second and was awarded a $200 prize, and Maryam placed third and received a $100 prize.
When Maryam was 9 years old, she began wearing a scarf around her head.
"I liked what it symbolized, and it made me feel good. It makes it so people don’t judge you for what you look like instead of who you are," said Maryam, who is Muslim. "It's your choice to start wearing it. Nobody can force you."
But that's not what some of her classmates thought.
"I wrote about how sometimes people misunderstand my scarf that I wear. And they think I’m forced to wear it. It can sometimes be hurtful," she said. "Once a girl thought I was forced by my parents to wear my scarf, and she was asking when I got older if I would take it off. It didn’t feel good. And I didn’t say anything."
Maryam said she doesn't get that much, especially living in Cleveland Heights. But if she could go back to that time last year when it happened, she'd say something.
"It was a one-sided question, I wasn’t given the opportunity to answer," said Maryam, who plays tennis at Heights. "(In the essay,) I talked about what happened and what I wished I did and what I should do next time."
The questions started in elementary school, when Adrian wasn't in the same classes as his friends.
Adrian, just like his brother and father, has dyslexia, so learning how to read and write didn't come easily.
"They just said, 'Why aren’t you in our classes?' and I didn’t know what to say. They just kind of picked on me," said Adrian, 16. "Maybe they'd call me slow."
But the bullying eventually stopped.
"When I got to high school, it was really nice," said Adrian, who is on the swimming and diving team, plays cello and has a knack for photography. "Kids don’t make fun of me. People don’t even know. If I happen to mention it they’ll be like, 'So what?' My real friends aren’t mean."
Though he uses certain techniques to help him and practices often, Adrian said he still sometimes has a difficult time reading.
"I have a harder time than other kids reading and writing, but I’ve kind of conquered a lot of it," he said. "It makes me a stronger person that I can work around my difficulties."
In order to prevent the bullying he went through, he wrote about what he'd do to help other kids.
"I would go to other elementary and middle schools and find the kids who have learning disabilities and talk to them and tell them it is going to get so much better in high school," he said. "I would just go around and talk and make them feel like they’re not the only ones going through this."
Corinne says her 12-year-old brother, and other students his age, are too young to be on Facebook. And she has a good reason to be protective.
Brandon was cyber-bullied. Someone hacked into his page and wrote comments about his sexuality as if they were coming from him. Kids responded to the fake post with a list of insults.
"I didn’t even know he had Facebook. (Brandon) didn’t even know this was going on until someone called my dad and said, 'Woah, I think someone hacked into your son’s Facebook account because something is not right."
Corinne wrote about how painful bullying can be.
"I wrote about how kids, teenagers, adults, they don’t realize how much bullying hurts people ... kids are committing suicide, kids are cutting themselves, kids are doing all kinds of crazy things because they’re being bullied," Corinne said.
Corinne, who is involved in a variety of leadership programs, poetry club and plays lacrosse and field hockey, is already trying to do something to stop it. She's in an organization called S.A.D.D., or Students Against Destructive Decisions, and she passed around ribbons at school that symbolize a stand against bullying.
"My little brother, he’s doing good. He deleted his Facebook, but now he’s back on it. I really don’t know what to do with him," Corrine said. "I didn’t get mine until my freshmen year in high school. I thought it was weird he’s in sixth grade and has Facebook. But he’s learned his lesson and learned who his real friends are."
Corinne said while bullying is a problem at every school, things seem to be better in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District.
"We’re Tiger Nation, and everybody usually helps everybody out every once in a while," she said. "There’s always that person that wants to mess with someone, but people are normally nice to each other."