Students get life lessons at literacy festival

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Oct. 17—WILLIMANTIC — As a high school student, Jose Gonzalez stumbled upon a Shakespeare anthology while retrieving his backpack in a classroom.

Gonzalez didn't have many books at home and decided to steal the book.

That was a turning point for the troubled young man, who was nearly kicked out of school.

" I discovered that the best weapon wasn't so much these ( fists), it wasn't going to be my body, it was going to be my words," Gonzalez told an audience of high school students at the Eastern Connecticut State University Student Center on Friday.

He delivered the keynote address during the first " Eastern Literary Festival for High School Students." The festival kicked off Thursday night with a poetry reading by Gonzalez that was open to the public. On Friday, Gonzalez gave a keynote address to students prior to writing workshops with the students.

Students from the following high schools participated: Arts at the Capitol Theater magnet high school in Willimantic; E. O. Smith High School in Mansfield; Lyman Memorial High School in Lebanon; North Branford High School; Parish Hill High School in Chaplin; RHAM High School in Hebron; Rockville High School in Vernon; Waterford High School; and Windham High School.

Three students were given prizes for their work.

$ 500 was awarded to the first place winner, Rockville High School 12th grader Anaya Tolton; $ 250 was awarded to the second place winner, Rockville High School 12th grader Nathan Kay; and $ 100 was awarded to Parish Hill High School 10th grader Harmony Freed.

Eastern Connecticut State University English Professor Chris Torockio said he was very impressed with the submissions from the students, noting that about half were fiction and about half were poetry.

" You're all, quite frankly, miles away from where I was when I was your age," he said.

Given the high quality of the submissions, Torockio said he was glad he didn't have to choose the winners, which was Gonzalez's responsibility.

During the workshops, which were led by published authors, students were given a prompt to write about. Rockville High School creative writing teacher Victoria Nordlund said the event gave students a chance to see writers " in action" in a college environment.

She said it was " incredible" to see prize winners have their work validated.

Two of the prize winners, first place winner Anaya Tolton and second- place winner Nathan Kay are Nordlund's students. Tolton and Kay are seniors at Rockville High School.

" I just think it's an incredible opportunity to come to Eastern," Nordlund said.

Often, Gonzalez writes about his experience as an immigrant from El Salvador to the United States. When he first moved to this country at eight years- old, he didn't know any English.

Now, Gonzalez is an English professor at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

He is a Fullbright Scholar with a doctorate degree in English.

Gonzalez's poetry has been published in the Norton Introduction to