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Second place: An old Ukrainian woman's face haunts and transforms Utah teen

It isn't the first time Danielle Leavitt has won a writing contest.

"I see something, and I automatically think about what I could write about it," said the 17-year-old senior at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy. She said the writing-intensive charter school has helped her to explore creative writing more than she ever thought was possible.

"It's thrilling to see the world in that way," Leavitt said. "Writing is one of the most powerful ways we can influence people, and it's also one of the most peaceful ways."

Although she spends the majority of every day writing in some form, Leavitt is not quite sure if she will choose writing as a career, but she is definitely going to explore that possibility next fall at Brigham Young University, where she hopes to study English.

In her second-place essay for the Deseret News Young Writers Contest, the teen wrote about a woman she saw only once while her family was living in Ukraine, but who is someone she remembers vividly and wonders about all the time.

"I have wondered how many times we look at people and will never understand who they really are. And I wonder what I missed out on by not getting to know her," Leavitt said.

Leavitt's family will head back to the eastern European country again early next year, and she will miss her graduation in Utah, but she said she has already completed the required credits needed to graduate and still just loves going to school. She's excited for the adventures she'll encounter this time around — in 2004, they witnessed the country's revolution happening "just a block away" — and said her family of nine does pretty well sticking together and having fun.

"I have this huge respect and obligation to honor our freedom, because I saw that it can change so quickly," she said.

As Maeser's student body president this year, Leavitt believes it is important to be friendly to everyone. Her prize money, she said, will go right into her savings account for college.


"A gift I'd like to give … "

by Danielle Leavitt

Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy

In the wintertime, the market at the end of Kreshatik Street smells of burning individual space heaters and warm fish. In the summertime, the bricks sweat, and tiny droplets of humidity get caught in the creases of your skin. The rusty letters on the outside of the building spell "RYNOK," or bazaar, which the tourists pronounce with their differentiating versions of Ukrainian accents. The Ukrainian summer sun beats down like a soft-boiled egg. Inside the Rynok, it is hot, and the stench of exhausted body odor and 10 stands of caviar, kilkas and salmon beat out the fresh air. But inside, it is cooler by a few degrees, and the pungent odor of the Rynok is preferable to the choking secondhand smoke on the sidewalk.

The Rynok is like a small circus. Five dozen different fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, flower and hat stands, each run by a babushka, or an old man, but usually a babushka. There is very little talking, which makes it hard to explain the intense sound inside: 200 shuffling feet, a thousand tiny flapping plastic bags, 100 whispered Ukrainian conversations and the occasional noisy tourist.

There is a tourist group at a meat stand. You can tell they are tourists because they hold their noses or scoff at the primitive nature of the Rynok. One girl in pink flip-flops squeals at the slabs of flesh open on the table, and they make their way through the circus with digital cameras and a book on the Top 20 Things to Do in Kiev.

They speak loudly and flash pictures of the meat stand and the babushka who sits on a green stool behind the booth. The girl in pink flip-flops laughs loudly and doesn't see the woman — the woman who sells meat that hangs from a bloody string; slabs of beef and pork legs and red muscles that grow less and less shiny as the day goes on. She is slow, moving her feet in rhythm with her blinks, sitting alone on the green stool, her hands pressed against the seat that braces her side like the end of a church pew. She shoos away the flies that parasite her only income. She does not embroider tablecloths like the other women, and she sits in silence while the tourists come in laughing or whining with loud expressions on their faces. She is old, and her loud expressions are long past spent, so she only watches.

To the tourists, she does not have a face, only wrinkled, brown paper-bag skin surrounding tasteless almond eyes that whirl into a thousand tears and 83 years of trying to understand God. The pictures they take will likely end up on Facebook, where someone's 897 "friends" can all clickety-click through the 48 pictures of the meat lady, her meat, and her eyes that she would have never allowed on camera. She looks down, hoping that no one's Canon PowerShot G10 catches what her eyes are whispering.

She looks down to hide that she has two in-grown toenails and a pain in her lungs. That she rides the metro 12 stops into the city every day, carrying 20 pounds of meat to sell. That she stops at every block's corner to lean against a building and catch her breath. That 65 years ago, she had a baby girl in the summertime in a village called Oplistko, and that after two months, the baby died of diphtheria. That she used to be in love, that she never got her cavities filled, that she started her period later than all the other girls. She looks down to hide that her father hit her once when she was 11, and that she cried.

I would like to give a gift to this woman. Perhaps if I slowed down. Perhaps if I, the girl in pink flip-flops, stopped for just one moment, I would see that I had missed her. That what marinated inside her old fleshy eyes was something much more intriguing than a trip to the Rynok. I did not see her face. And likely I will never know that she saw my eyes when I didn't see hers, that she would have told me if I would have asked, that I left the market a sliver more incomplete because she holds a piece of me that I will never think to discover.

Too much goes unsaid.

I cannot stop thinking of the woman. She falls over and over again in my mind where she is — 10,000 people who I wish I had seen. A sea of faceless, nameless people who each hold a breath of wisdom I will never understand, people who I never talked to, people who I pass on the street or at school whose faces float in my memory for less time than it takes to see them at all. These are they who I will never know, the women on green stools, the ones who if I ever see again, I want them to understand that I am sorry for not seeing their faces. Everybody has a story. The gift I would like to give is for anyone: the gift of seeing you, the gift of knowing you, the gift of listening to your story.