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Letters About Literature National Winners 2013

National Honorable Mention, Level 1: Dalton Vassallo

Dear Jerry Spinelli,

What does it mean to be different? Does it mean to wear different clothes or shoes? Does it mean to listen to different music or style your hair differently? Or does it mean to think, or feel, or act differently? I think being different can mean being unusual or unique, but most importantly, it should not mean being alone.

This past February, I, along with my brother, my mother, and eleven others, traveled to the Central American country of Honduras, as members of an international mission team. We spent one week there. Each morning, we labored over cinder blocks, steel beams, and iron bars, helping to rebuild Iglesia Episcopal, a church in the city of San Marcos that was demolished by an earthquake. Each afternoon, we delighted in playing with, laughing with, and sharing with the Honduran kids of Chachaguala, a hillside village just north of San Marcos. During our first visit to the village, while playing basketball on a makeshift, cracked cement court, I noticed a small boy standing off to the side. A dusty white T-shirt blended with his light skin and blonde hair. His bright, curious blue eyes followed the tattered ball around the court, like a puppy chasing a tennis ball. The others called him Gringo. He stood out from the others. He was a circle in a world of squares. The other kids had darker skin, darker hair, and brown eyes. Gringo ''was different. Different”(Spinelli 26), just like Stargirl.

I read Stargirl at the beginning of fifth grade. When I first looked at the cover, teal with a single green stick-figure girl standing beneath a lop-sided yellow star, I sighed an exasperated sigh. "Really, a chick flick?" I asked myself, doubting that I would enjoy the story. After reading the first chapter for homework, I knew that Stargirl Caraway was a character that I would never forget. Stargirl's kind and loving, yet quirky personality opened my eyes to the "different" people of the world around me.

After our basketball game ended, I walked over and said “Hola" to Gringo. None of my new friends from the court joined me. They all "held back... [Gringo] was unknown territory. Unsafe.  [They] were afraid to get too close" (Spinelli 26). I tapped on my chest and, using my miniscule Spanish vocabulary, introduced myself, "Me llamo Dalton." Each day, I learned more and more about him. Each day, I also became closer to the others.  Despite my separate friendships, Gringo and the others had not connected with each other the way I had. One day, as I went off to play basketball with the others, I hesitated and thought about Gringo. I walked over to where he was crouched in the dirt, playing with a few stones. I pointed to myself. I pointed to him.  I pointed to the court. He looked up at me, smiled, and stood up. We walked over to the court together and began to play.

Gringo was a little clumsy with the ball, but not selfish. Whenever someone passed to Gringo, he was generous and passed the ball to another teammate. Whenever someone got a basket, Gringo cheered. The other kids began to realize that Gringo wasn't that different after all. He was kind and caring and loved to play basketball just like them. In fact, just like Mica High embraced Stargirl, they "decided that (they] liked having [him] around" (Spinelli 25).

If I hadn't read Stargirl, I probably would not have helped Gringo. Stargirl helped me to change one small boy’s life. I am honored to have shared in such a wonderful experience, and I thank you for giving me the inspiration. Being different does not mean being alone.  Different people deserve to be noticed and to be known, and I will always help them to do both.

Dalton Vassallo