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Valued Voices
Exciting Choices

Caitlin Johnson

When the pandemic sent Norfolk Academy into distance learning mode in spring 2020, the literary magazine was just part way down the road to publication.

The editors of Rings, Strings, & Other Things had selected all of the pieces for the magazine, but assembly of the magazine had not begun, and the seniors in the Class of 2020 graduated.

As school resumed in fall 2020, Editor-in-Chief Caitlin Johnson '21 decided that the work couldn't remain in stacks and folders, especially since the editors had written "an amazing letter" for what was intended to be the spring 2020 edition. She began the grueling task of typing all of the pieces into a Google doc, proofreading all the pieces, and designing the publication on Adobe software, arranging poems and prose alongside artwork that often offers interpretive possibilities.

Pushing herself hard, even with college applications to complete, she finished that magazine in the fall. This spring, she did it all over again. 

"Yes, it was hundreds of hours," she said quite happily. It should come as no surprise, then, that Johnson, who will attend Amherst College in the fall, won prizes at Graduation for excellence in writing poetry and for her contributions to student publications. She speaks with a combination of passion and insight about the writing and visual art of her classmates.

And this spring's 143-page edition is overflowing: 70 pieces of writing from Middle and Upper School students and 47 pieces of art and photography. The cover art was created by Jackson Weis '21. Sarah Jacobs '22, who served as Junior Editor and helped design the magazine with Johnson, will be Editor-in-Chief next year.

Johnson can talk about each different item, and she delights in the way that a certain art submission complements a piece of writing, like the poem, "I've Fallen in Love One Thousand Times," by Ella Deans '21, paired with a painting of Sweethearts candy by Layla Mersel '21; each candy heart has an updated text-style shorthand message, like "U Up?" or "DM Me."

Johnson notes that the isolation that students experienced due to lockdowns gave rise to an outpouring of emotion, revealed in both the content of the writing and the volume of submissions. Early in the year, seeking to boost spirits on campus, the magazine editors asked students to submit pieces about joy and things that made them happy. However, Johnson said, she soon learned that the request didn't quite meet the moment. "People came up to me and said, 'I don't want to write about happy things. I want to write about sad things, because that's how I am feeling.'"

Johnson said she gained an understanding of how people respond when surrounded by darkness. "Teenagers aren't able to move out of emotion just like that," she said. "They want to focus on it and deal with it."

So the lit-mag staff adapted. In addition to a section entitled "Joy," there is a section called "Growth," which includes writing like "To Sacrifice," by Andrew Trinder '22, "Breathe, Focus, You Got This," by Rhea Khanna '24, and "Haikus on a Pandemic," for which the author chose to be anonymous.

There is also a section entitled "Justice," with many pieces created as a part of the writing workshops for Seminar Day: Issues in Social Justice, which featured nationally renowned poet Kwame Alexander and his poem, The Undefeated, which was published in book form with illustrations by award-winning artist Kadir Nelson. Alexander met with Middle and Upper Schools students in a Zoom webinar to read his poem, tell about his life's journey, and answer questions in a frank, often emotional exchange. (He also did a webinar with the Lower School.)

Johnson said she was deeply moved and impressed by the "great emotional writing" that students produced about social justice, which can be a sensitive topic. Moreover, she said, school offers an important place for students to express their beliefs and debate their beliefs without yelling or being attacked. In an academic setting, it is easier for people to understand that it is writing to be interpreted and open their minds to it.

Above all, she wants readers of Rings, String, & Other Things "to understand and appreciate the courage it takes to submit things to this publication. It's an extraordinary edition."

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