Through thank-you emails to her students’ favorite English teachers, Distinguished Service Professor Leigh Wilson turned a kind gesture into a yearly writing contest intertwining the stories of high school and SUNY Oswego students, leaving a lasting mark on those involved.

The plan was for Wilson to have first-year students share the contact information of their favorite English teachers from high school. The English and Creative Writing Department chair would reach out to the instructors as a sign of appreciation for entrusting the faculty with furthering the education of their scholars.

As Wilson continued contacting teachers, one instructor from Charles W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville was interested in teaching creative writing, and inquired about collaborating on a project with SUNY Oswego.

“She wanted to teach actual college credit,” Wilson said. “Thought it’d be fun if my advanced students read her students' creative writing contest work and pick a winner. That’s how it started.”

The contest featured writing students from Baker High curating scary stories and sharing them with creative writing majors from Oswego. Students would read the pieces and write short assessments on what made them stand out. 

They would then rank their top three, sharing the results with the high school students, who unveiled the winner at their annual Halloween event.

As Wilson continued reading their stories, she grew more and more impressed with the students' writing quality. She appreciated how passionate they were about the contest, as students would cry tears of joy if they won. 

Wilson says the high-caliber work is a testament to the strong teaching from Baker High instructors. She developed great respect for the instructors as the contest continued to evolve. She began crafting gift boxes as a thank-you for their commitment to the contest.

It felt as if they were part of a family.

“It was an emotionally satisfying thing to have started,” Wilson said.

Continuing connections

A few years ago, Wilson passed on responsibilities for the project to JR Walsh, who teaches poetry and fiction at SUNY Oswego. 

The initial teacher from Baker High School also moved on from the project, but Brett Finlayson, a new instructor to the high school and a published writer, took over and is now responsible for the annual contest.

When learning about the contest, Walsh was excited about the opportunity to reach from one class to the next through the art of writing. He mentioned the importance of college students interacting with high school students and the exposure to their skill level.

“I remember being in a class directed by Syracuse University when I was in high school,” said Walsh. “Just the idea of doing college-level work, that was a big deal.”

As he dove into the stories, Walsh was intrigued to read the varying levels of “horror” in their writing, ranging from failed interpersonal dynamics to the terrifying unknown of a creature hiding in the basement.

Walsh and his students also found inspiration in writing, marveling at the ability to develop nightmares into artistic forms of literature while reminiscing on, for example, the night terrors experienced during their youth.

“I expect that every time we get a new batch of stories, we have our collective minds blown in a new way,” said Walsh. “That’s exciting as a teacher.”

Silver lining

Organizers hope this contest can be a silver lining for students in a rough year for the Baldwinsville Central School District. In the past months, the community lost two young students with bright futures ahead of them.

That makes outlets for students to communicate their emotions that much more critical.

“Finding activities and ways for students to express the things that are on their mind feels even more important when faced with collective tragedy,” said Walsh. 

The future of the contest remains fluid. Walsh hopes for it to continue and plans to house the collaboration within his “Introduction To Fiction” course to help first-year students learn the elements of fiction writing.

SUNY Oswego creative writing program director Laura Donnelly said working with Baker High School allows students to realize they are no longer trainees in their field, graduating into mentors ushering the next generation of writers.

Donnelly hopes the contest can introduce new creative writing majors to SUNY Oswego in the fall.

“How can we reach out to the area to get the word out about what a great writing program we have here?” said Donnelly. “This is a great way to do that.”

Even in the small interactions between Baker High and Oswego students, the art of writing, through scary stories or reviews, decreases the distance between them and allows their voices to be heard through art.

Wilson feels the fiction genre lets writers convey detailed and heartfelt thoughts, sharing the truth about their world beyond reality. 

“It was your stuff moving someone that you’ve never seen in your life, and they thought it was great,” said Wilson. “That’s one of the things that writing does; you realize the power of it, and these students realize the power of it.”

-- Written by Andy Guity of the Class of 2023