Teacher guides young writers in contest she won in '96

By Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — Zemen Marrugi has come full circle.

As a middle-school student, she won a national writing contest with an essay about violence in Detroit, an achievement that inspired her to become the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Marrugi is a teacher who's helping a new generation of Detroit students reach for their dreams through writing.

Marrugi leads the Detroit chapter of Do the Write Thing, an initiative of the National Campaign to Stop Violence. She also runs an after-school writing club at Detroit Enterprise Academy, where she emphasizes the importance of descriptive writing to her students.

"What does youth violence look like?" she asked the four students seated around a table in a classroom Thursday afternoon. "How does it sound, smell, taste and feel?"

Eighth-grader Gary McKay, 13, responded: "Screaming for how it sounds, salty for how it tastes with tears and bloody for how it looks."

All of the school's middle-school students, including those in the club, entered their work in the contest, which encouraged them to write about youth violence in Detroit and its impact on their lives.

The "Do the Write Thing Challenge" began in 1996, with Marrugi, then a student at Nolan Middle School, as its first winner. She represented Detroit as a national ambassador for a week-long visit to Washington, D.C. It was quite an accomplishment for a young student in a family where, she said, nobody had even graduated from high school.

"When I came back to Detroit from the trip to D.C., it was very clear to me that I wanted an education and that I wanted to be a positive example for my friends, neighborhood and community as a whole," she said. "So I pursued a degree in education and became a teacher and ultimately realized if I truly wanted to make a difference, I needed to be in front of young people inspiring and encouraging them along the way."

Marrugi is the school's assistant principal, and for the past five years, she has volunteered to coach the after-school writing club. The academy is the host school this year for the Detroit chapter's contest, and will be again next year.

Each year, one male and one female student from schools across Detroit are selected as finalists. Last year, the male winner was Gary McKay of Detroit Enterprise Academy and the female winner was Zahnae Daniels of Allen Academy.

The two students traveled to Washington, D.C., where they met lawmakers, visited historical sites, and now have their writing entered in the Library of Congress.

Gary's winning essay was self-reflective, said Marrugi. In it, he encouraged parents to stop arguing and fighting in front of their children.

Gary, now an eighth-grader, said writing the essay helped him change his own violent tendencies. "It motivated me to stop what I was doing and think for a second and not be so aggressive," he said.

Sixth-grader Chyna Scott, 12, said her essay about youth violence made her feel "very sad."

"I hate to see people being hurt and kids being killed on the news and hear about people being in danger," she said.


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