Author Jenny Xie (right) nominated Robert R. Lazar English teacher Suezette Given (left) for the American Writers Museum’s OnWord 2021 Inspiration Award. This photo was taken when the author read at the Dodge Poetry Festival -- a festival Xie first attended when Given took her there as a high school student with her writing class. “It was a wonderful full circle moment for both of us!” Given said of the photo and the experience of seeing a student become a writer. The AWM award includes a $10,000 gift for the inspiring teacher who receives it.
Teacher Suezette Given received the American Writers Museum’s [AWM] OnWord 2021 Inspiration Award. The ceremony was held in Chicago in the days just before the start of the 2021-2022 school year.
The OnWord Inspiration Award honors teachers who have made a difference in the lives of great writers.
Given, an English teacher at Robert R. Lazar Middle School in Montville Township, New Jersey, was nominated for the Inspiration Award and $10,000 prize by author Jenny Xie.
Xie, an award winning author, who was named the winner of the Holmes National Poetry Prize, as a "poet of special merit", and who recently won the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature, was a former student of Given’s when she was a 10th grade writing teacher in North Brunswick Township High School in NJ.
“There are those who spur the impulse in us in the first place,” writer Xie said, “who brought us back to the page again and again through innumerable acts of recognition and sustaining guidance, even – and especially – when writing felt like an outsized ambition – preposterous --something we couldn’t yet claim for ourselves. Suezette Given, my high school English and creative writing teacher, falls into all of these categories.”
The AWM’s mission is “to celebrate the enduring influence of American writers on our history, identity, culture, and daily lives." This includes the promotion of great writers of the present. This year, author Jenny Xie, who was also a 2018 Walt Whitman Award recipient and finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, was asked to nominate a teacher who has inspired and informed her writing.
“This award is unique in the writing community – in the educational community,” said author Rebecca Makkai, who hosted the OnWord 2021 awards event. “I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
The OnWord Inspiration Award was first presented in 2019.
“When I became Mrs. Given’s student, I found myself, not only in the presence of a wholly generous and impassioned teacher, but also a practicing writer.” Xie continued. “As a teacher, Mrs. Given made us feel that our own minds were worthy of cultivating…. She made us feel like our poems and stories were deserving of serious reflection.”
Portions of the gala awards ceremony were filmed virtually on August 31, 2021. In person, Given spoke of her joy as she took the stage in Chicago on September 2.
“I feel like this is the Oscars for teachers,” Given said as she accepted her award. “This award is more than I ever expected, and truly serves as one of the greatest moments that a teacher could ever hope for.”
This week, when asked about the AWM awards experience, Given said: “As a teacher, I am so pleased to know that what we all do every day is important. To hear Jenny talk about the impact of our time together, which was a while ago, was validation of what it means to be a teacher. To make a difference to a student, to be part of their story and their success is just wonderful.”
AWM provides a monetary award for the OnWord Inspiration Award because they "understand how hard teaching can be."
The 2021 OnWord Awards can be viewed online at the americanwritersmuseum.org website. “You want your students to see their potential and to learn to express themselves in the world,” Given explained. “Being able to spend my professional time sharing the things I love: reading, writing, talking about books, creating poetry, and geek-ing out about words, has been a joy.”
The segment of the gala event where author Jenny Xie dedicates the 2021 Inspiration Award to teacher Suezette Given can be viewed on YouTube