Looks Bright: ESJH senior earns 2nd in national essay contest

Published 12:14 am Saturday, April 8, 2017

RESERVE — Kaleb Mendez loves history.

It’s only natural, then, that the East St. John High School senior has a special affinity for the World War II Museum in New Orleans.

When he can’t be there in person, he enjoys poking around the museum’s web site.

Under a special section for students and teachers, Mendez discovered an essay contest for high school students. The prompt was a quote by the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and author Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust.

“When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant,” Wiesel said.

The topic affected Mendez, the son of Blanca and Jimmy Mendez.

World history teacher Peter Russo, right, said senior Kaleb Mendez is always asking about current events.

“Basically, it was a topic I was interested in,” Mendez said. “The quote really spoke to me. As soon as I heard the quote, I had an idea of what I wanted to talk about. I went and talked to some friends about the quote and said I was going to write an essay about it. I went with that.”

In December, Mendez put together his roughly 1,000-word essay responding to the quote. His well-written composition took second place in the nation-wide contest, earning him a $750 prize.

“I felt pretty good about it,” Mendez said. “Basically I wrote that we need to ignore international boundaries, especially in places like Syria. We have to unite as a world and help those people.”

Mendez did need a little help organizing his thoughts, however, so he approached his world history teacher, Peter Russo, for help.

“I went to him and said I needed some help coming up with some points,” Mendez said. “I needed some ideas about what to write about. He helped me with that.”

Russo said it was an easy collaboration, as Mendez is a budding social justice warrior, a rarity among high school students today.

“He’s constantly asking me what’s going on with current events, with the new presidential administration and events throughout the world,” said Russo, a third year teacher who came to St. John the Baptist Parish this year from Mount Carmel Academy.

“I would say he’s one of the stand-out students in terms of caring about what’s going on. He cares about other people. He doesn’t just think about himself. I think that’s why the Elie Wiezel quote was right up his alley. It spoke to what’s in his heart, what’s in his nature. He’s compassionate. He thinks about, what do we need to do as a country, as human beings really, to help those people.

“He doesn’t limit himself by the Atlantic Ocean. He transcends national boundaries. His heart is in the right place.”

This wasn’t Mendez’s first foray into competition.

He also spotted a quiz bowl competition on the museum’s web site and got a couple of his friends to form a team for the event.

Mendez is an active member of the Beta Club, which just attended the state convention and qualified for the national leadership conference to be held this summer in Disney World.

He also competed in the state literary rally, finishing third in World History at regionals.

After spending some of his winnings on typical teenage things like clothes, Mendez said he is putting the rest away for college. He plans to enroll at Loyola University in the fall to major in criminal justice.

Eventually he hopes to work for a government agency, such at the TSA, the CIA or the FBI.

History still is his favorite subject, though.

“The interactions between people and countries over time is really interesting to me,” Mendez said.

(The entire essay, along with those of the other winners can be read at nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/essay-contests/2017-winners.html)