Invasion of the Teenage Geniuses

Margaret Nietfeld was telling the Transom about her three-part memoir, the first of which concerns her father’s transsexuality. “I have the names of the first two parts, but I don’t know the third,” she said. “Scrambled Eggs followed by Salad Days, and the third one has to be food-related with a two-syllable adjective followed by a one-word noun. I’ll take suggestions.”

Cutting an impressive figure at six feet tall in high heels, Ms. Nietfeld explained that this was not her first time in New York. Though the Harvard-bound pixie-cut blonde hails from Michigan, she’d visited the city just this past fall to model in a Bryant Park Fashion Week show. 

Ms. Nietfeld was at the very top tier of several hundred high-school students from across the country who descended on Carnegie Hall June 9 for Scholastic’s 87th annual Art & Writing Awards, the first event in a two-day whirlwind designed to introduce the newly minted smart set to New York’s cultural landscape. The Empire State Building was lit gold for the celebration, but it was hard to see in the rainy evening.

The awards are almost as old as the company itself, and most of the honorees-all decorated with Olympic-style medallions on colored ribbons signifying his or their level of achievement-seemed nervous to receive recognition that has also been bestowed on teenage incarnations of Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates and Andy Warhol.

The teens represented the handful of 1,300 national winners who could make it to New York, all now eligible for scholarships and awards through the program, and all equally praised during the ceremony.

At the reception immediately afterward, 15 seniors who nabbed the evening’s highest honor mingled with Scholastic executives and high-value donors. Distinguished with a medal on a gold ribbon, these “Portfolio Gold Medalists” were also anointed with a $10,000 scholarship. The wunderkinds tended to lack their peers’ skittishness. Their luster rivaled that of X-Men 3 star Ben Foster, who had participated in a dramatic reading of the portfolio winners’ work during the ceremony, and now stood alone at the bar.

“I’m a modern girl,” Ms. Nietfeld told us. “I have a short attention span. I want things quick and snappy and crisp and clear, and I want my colors saturated and everything after the commercial break. My writing definitely reflects that.”

Most of the portfolio winners were equally happy to talk about their work. Their themes included “the give and take of how you tend to like home more when you’re away from it” and “the intersection between architecture and history.” A few worked in the “editorial, almost documentary” style.

“It goes in my mind and comes out on the page,” said Xavier Donnelly, whose drawings covered the evening’s promotional materials.

At the back of the room, the diminutive Rita Feinstein and Alexandra Franklin held court, accepting congratulations from visitors as they chatted excitedly about their writing. The two had met last year, as lower-tier winners, and each said she’d known the other would take the top prize this year.

“I don’t know any other place on the face of the earth where you can meet friends so fast,” Ms. Feinstein said. “You immediately have something in common just by being here.”

“It’s such a big thing!” added Ms. Franklin, who writes on a 1931 Remington typewriter. “Writing is such a big part of my life and I know that at least all of the portfolio winners have the same focus and the same love for it.”

Where the girls were giddy, Jake Ross, a wild-haired essayist stuffed into a seemingly new suit, cultivated an aloofness about the event. “We had a guest artist at our school one time who was like, ‘Awards-they’re just like little kisses on the cheek, they tell you to keep going,'” he said. “I trump this up to be a little more than that, though. I mean, I just shook Ben Foster’s hand. I was like, ‘Oh my God!'”

The next day, Scholastic held a reading in Bryant Park, as well as a host of workshops at various media organizations throughout the city, including introductory sessions at Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and HarperCollins. They’d also booked the 15 under 20 on Good Morning America.

“So great to have you here,” said George Stephanopoulos as the kids stood at the back of the studio the next morning. “And I love the medals as well.”

The Transom attended the keynote seminar by author Kurt Andersen (and Observer biz partner in VSL!) at Scholastic’s Soho headquarters. In his speech, he aimed to break them of any narrow definitions that they might be tempted to put on themselves. 

“It’s great to have a kind of missionary conviction that ‘this is what I am and this is what I want to do’ but don’t allow yourself to ignore some wonderful digression or diversion that comes along,” he said.

“I talk to college audiences, and sometimes that’s O.K., and sometimes it’s not,” Mr. Andersen told us after the speech. “As opposed to these kids, who are so excited. They are just at this age that’s a complete pleasure to experience.”

Later that day, we caught up with the winners at a show of their work at a gallery in the World Financial Center. The projects ranged across various media-one winner pointed out to the Transom a guitar he’d made out of video game components, demonstrating how it worked by way of a video on his iPad.

“It’s kind of overwhelming,” Ms. Neitfeld told us at the gallery, “because you’re here and you see all this work and you feel like, ‘I shouldn’t be looking at this work; I should be working myself.'”

On our way out, we passed a guest book, where the open page revealed a signed farewell note from Ms. Feinstein: “We shall inherit the earth!”

 

Invasion of the Teenage Geniuses