Winning the Sophie Kerr Prize
Posted on 16 May 2011
My college graduation experience wasn’t exactly a typical one. I woke up knowing that one of two things could happen: I could either walk away with a significant amount of money, or I’d leave hugely disappointed.
Washington College awards the Sophie Kerr Prize each year to the graduating senior “who has the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” Thanks to a long-ago gift from the writer Sophie Kerr, one lucky Washington College senior leaves graduation with a sizable check, an amount that these days usually lands somewhere in the $60,000 range.
Since the prize was first awarded in 1968, the college announced the winner at commencement. This was a highly secretive, tension-filled moment for anyone who had a stake in winning. If you submit a portfolio for the award, you must endure the suspense until the end of the ceremony, when the college president opens an envelope and reads the recipient’s name. Then, if you’re lucky enough to be the winner, you’re flooded by reporters and cameras and are swept off to impromptu press conferences to answer how, exactly, you’re going to spend all that money. If you don’t win, you’re left disappointed, and, depending on how much you had wanted to win or how good you thought your chances were, there might be a shadow over the rest of your graduation day.
After 4 decades of this tradition, the drama the prize lends to Washington College’s graduation will disappear this year. For the first time, the Sophie Kerr Prize winner will be announced the week before commencement. Also for the first time, finalists will be named instead of just one thrilled winner. But the biggest change of all is that the Sophie Kerr Prize will be awarded not on the Washington College campus in Chestertown, Maryland, but in New York City.
I have mixed feelings about this change. On one hand, I support naming finalists and providing them with additional opportunities. On the other hand, awarding the prize in New York instead of Chestertown seems disingenuous.
But before I get into all that, let me tell you what my day was like when I graduated from Washington College. This was back when the prize was awarded as it always was – at commencement, in Chestertown, before the entire graduating class.
“You’re Going to Win”
The Sophie Kerr Prize had been on my radar from the time I first heard about Washington College as a sophomore in high school. Two guys who worked with me on the high school literary magazine had decided to attend the college. They told me about the Lit House, the writing program, and, of course, the Sophie Kerr Prize. By the time my own senior year rolled around, Washington College was my first choice of schools. Yes, the Sophie Kerr Prize was part of the allure, but mostly I just felt that I belonged there. I knew better than to bank on a highly competitive and uncertain award.
My mother, meanwhile, was firmly optimistic about my chances of winning “the nation’s largest undergraduate literary award.” She told me, on more than one occasion: “You’re going to win the Sophie Kerr Prize. I just know it.”
I wasn’t nearly as confident. Like any award, the selection process would be subjective and imperfect, and it wasn’t exactly practical to get my hopes up. Still, I wanted to win. As graduation day drew closer, I spent plenty of time trying to convince myself — and my friends, and my family — that there was no way I’d win.
Truthfully, I worried I wouldn’t be able to handle the disappointment if I didn’t.
I woke up that morning upset that a chance of rain forced the ceremony to move from the beautiful college lawn inside to a stuffy gymnasium. This put me in a very bad mood. In retrospect, I think I was just working through the jitters of knowing that the Sophie Kerr winner would finally be announced, and I was worried it wouldn’t be me. I was already steeling myself for the disappointment.
During the ceremony, I sat through the speeches, cheered for my friends, and crossed the stage to receive my degree. I forgot to pause for the photograph afterward, so I laughed and had to go back. Finally, near the end of the ceremony, it was time to announce the winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize.
In the seconds of silence before the college president cracked open the envelope, all I could think was, “I’m going to find out who won this thing. That moment is actually, actually here.” I think I wanted to throw up. I definitely didn’t want him to read a name out loud. But then he did – and it was mine.
My friend, two seats down, cheered and leapt out of her chair while I covered my mouth with my hand, completely shocked. I finally made it on stage to accept the check (a Washington Post reporter later described me as “fluttering in paper-thin flip flops”). I nearly lost my cap and I think I gave the college president an awkward hug. I was completely overwhelmed. For someone who isn’t big on being the center of attention in general, much less the kind that comes with reporters and lots of cameras, this was bizarre.
After the ceremony, I crammed into a tiny room with reporters and college officials and was asked all sorts of questions that I answered in mostly inarticulate ways. I expressed such surprise and shock that the reporters probably thought I truly came out of nowhere to win. I really was in shock over winning, that was true, but in retrospect, I also wish I hadn’t acted (or felt) like it was so crazy that I won. I had worked really hard. I wrote my first novel and revised it not once, not twice, but three times that year. I spent hours and hours in my fellowship room in the lit house. I should have had more confidence in myself.
My family and I canceled our 10-person reservation at my favorite Italian restaurant to instead dine at a special post-graduation reception. My place setting had a name tag that said “Reserved: Sophie Kerr.” I tried drinking some white wine but was so wired and dehydrated that I couldn’t handle much. That should tell you how exhausted and overwhelmed I was — if I can’t drink wine, something’s up. At one point I met Linda Hamilton (of Terminator 2 fame, of course; she attended Washington College for a few years and was our commencement speaker) and at another point I had to go to the podium to give an impromptu speech, yet another joy for an introvert. It went something like: “Wow, this is great. I’m not sure yet how I’ll spend the money. All I know is that I’ll definitely keep writing and I would like to get an MFA in fiction someday.” (What happened to that MFA? Oh well. At least I’m still writing fiction.)
At some point in the day, I opened graduation gifts with my family. There were a few jokes whenever I opened a present or card, like, “I know it’s not as good as $61,000, but…” I ended up skipping the graduation party that all my friends went to; I regret that now, but it just wasn’t realistic given the circumstances.
Finally, the day was over. But before I went to bed, a wave of grief hit me. My mother had always believed in my writing and that I would win the Sophie Kerr Prize. Now, two years after her sudden death from cancer, I had won it. That she couldn’t be there to share that winning moment – or, I realized, any other happy moment to come in my life – was just awful. Even worse, I won the prize with a first novel about a young woman who had lost her own mother. I had argued up and down it wasn’t autobiographical, but who are we kidding. The plot wasn’t autobiographical, but much of the rest of it, the emotional truth and the parts that matter, surely was.
So I thought about my mother and I cried and then I finally fell asleep. In the morning, the hotel manager gave me a copy of the Baltimore Sun, which had my photo on the cover. Later I picked up the Washington Post, where I appeared on the cover of the Metro section. My win seemed to get a little more press than usual. I wasn’t stupid – I knew some of the reporters viewed the story of how I lost my mother and then wrote about a grieving daughter as a hook. I didn’t really have time to consider how I felt about that. Mostly, I tried not to look too closely at my pictures in the papers and got a little better at being interviewed as the requests kept coming in even after graduation.
So. My graduation day was exciting and strange and overwhelming and nerve-wracking, particularly for someone who isn’t fond of the spotlight, but I wouldn’t change any of it. The Sophie Kerr Prize has always been such a part of the graduation ceremony that it’s hard to imagine the prize being awarded under any other circumstances. But this year, for the first time, five finalists will travel to New York and will attend an award ceremony on the Tuesday before graduation — that’s tomorrow night.
In tomorrow’s post (time permitting), I’ll dive into that issue a little more, and I’ll offer some entirely unsolicited words for the finalists. Good luck to all of them. At least they won’t have to worry about losing their caps onstage…although I’m pretty sure I’m the only Sophie Kerr winner who has been that much of a klutz. Go figure.
Photos (from top): (1) After I won the prize, a very kind woman mailed me a photocopy of a card that Sophie Kerr herself sent one Christmas. That is Sophie’s “trusted cat.” Proof that Sophie was likely a cat lady at heart, just like me! Her love of cats may even have contributed to her decision to leave the money to Washington College instead of her alma mater, apparently. Clearly this was all written in the stars. I also feel a little warm and fuzzy to know she’d probably approve of my cats–with–lit–mags posts.
(2) The Washington Post story that ran the day after graduation.
(3) The Baltimore Sun feature that ran a few days after I won the prize.