Isabel Hui was anxious the first day of her freshman year at South Forsyth High School in 2016, and her nerves were directed at her wardrobe. This was her chance to make a first impression with her classmates after moving to a new state again. Her outfit mattered.
When Hui walked into her first class, there was Mrs. Hutfilz, her English teacher, wearing the exact same patterned dress from Target.
Hui had to give an introduction in front of the whole class. The matching outfits would be obvious to her classmates.
“This was the moment I had been dreading from the moment I walked in,” Hui later wrote.
Instead, it turned into a good-humored exchange between the two, and a lifelong lesson for Hui that she made the subject of an essay that was recently published by The New York Times.
The South Forsyth senior was one of eight winners in the Times’ recent personal narrative contest. The contest had few restrictions, aside from a 600-word limit. Rather, it challenged submissions to “tell a tale that matters to you, in a way you enjoy telling it.”
The Times received over 8,000 entries from around the world, according to its website. The winning essays had “a clear narrative arc with a conflict and a main character who changed in some way,” a strong voice and focused on a specific moment or theme.
Hui heard about the contest from her AP literature teacher. Hui enjoys writing, but she had mostly been writing college essays at the time. Hui saw the Times’ contest as a chance to do something more creative.
Hui said she spent about a week working on the essay, from reflecting on that moment four years ago in Mrs. Hutfilz’s class to the actual writing. There were several drafts, Hui said.
“A lot of my process was cutting down to the most essential components to the story,” Hui said. “I took a lot of time with each draft.”
Hui submitted her essay, “First Impressions,” last fall, then found out she was a finalist in December while at Disney World with her family.
But Hui didn’t hear from the Times again. Instead, a few
weeks later, Hui’s sister, Audrey, a freshman at South Forsyth, texted her: Audrey was on the Times’ website to do
research for a class assignment, and there was Hui’s essay.
Hui was in English class and immediately looked on the Times’ website.
“I didn’t think it was real at first,” Hui said. “… There’s no way I beat out 8,000 people.”
Hui started to hear from friends and family from around the country. After all, she moved a lot before high school, so she received congratulations from California and Michigan and Texas
“I didn’t think something like that would be so resounding and resonating,” Hui said. “It’s been really cool.”
Hui plans to continue writing. Not because she wants to be a journalist; Hui hopes to be a lawyer one day.
But she finds writing “soothing,” she says, and knows it will be a critical skill to have, no matter the career she chooses.
“I definitely want to keep up my writing skills to keep them sharp for the future,” Hui said.