English major from Delaware wins $64,243 Sophie Kerr Prize

Portfolio of Hailey Reissman, 22, included critical essays, letters and a piece written in the voice of David Mamet

May 16, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

CHESTERTOWN — The piece wasn't some naked confession about the difficulties of growing up with cerebral palsy. Instead, Hailey Reissman came at her story from the side, with a twist of humor and a touch of the profane.

She called it, "I Have Cerebral Palsy and David Mamet Reveals What I Imagine The Friends Of The Guy I Am Dating Will Say When He Tells Them About Me, In Three Brief Monologues."

The title encapsulates the wit and inventiveness that so impressed Reissman's professors at Washington College. On Sunday, they rewarded the senior English major from Wilmington, Del., with the $64,243 Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation's most lucrative undergraduate literary award.

Reissman, 22, received the award at commencement and used her dry humor to sum up the experience. "Who doesn't want to win thousands of dollars?" she said. "It's not something you have to shy people away from when they're English majors."

She isn't sure what she'll do with the prize beyond paying off college loans. She will continue to experiment with various forms of writing, from creative nonfiction to humor to poetry.

"I'm 22 years old," she said. "I'm still trying stuff out."

Reissman submitted an 88-page portfolio that featured a critical essay on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, letters addressed to the late Sophie Kerr and the finale, in Mamet's voice, about male perspectives on dating a disabled woman.

"She reveals herself from another angle in a funny, but wrenching way," said Kate Moncrief, chair of the college's English department and head of the award panel that reviewed portfolios from 24 graduating seniors.

Moncrief singled out the Mamet piece, less for its raw courage and more as an example of Reissman's resourcefulness.

"She gestures to it," Moncrief said of the writer's disability. "But it's not the anchor to everything she writes. It wouldn't be the chief thing you would turn to to describe her writing."

"It's just something that I live with," Reissman said. "It's part of you, but I don't claim to write well about disability. It's so hard. I'm not writing to the experience of everyone with a disability."

Faculty members praised the astonishing range and lack of weaknesses in Reissman's portfolio.

"One piece after another was a surprise," Moncrief said. "It was fun to read from beginning to end. It wasn't just something you would read because you had to as the chair of a prize panel."

Professors and family members described Reissman as an introvert whose dry sense of humor only comes out in her writing and for those who know her well.

"She's really good at that David Sedaris style of humor," said her mother, Sallie Reissman.

"But you really wouldn't know it," said Reissman's younger sister, Sabrina. "She doesn't say a word unless she knows you."

Reissman appeared subdued as she walked up to receive the award, but her mother hopped up and down and began hyperventilating. "Oh my gosh, it was my daughter!" she said.

Reissman's parents said they noticed her gift early on. She read the newspaper at age 4 and insisted that her father read her to sleep every night. She moved to devouring books and writing poetry by the time she turned 6.

"I don't think she even realizes how smart she is," her sister said. "Her papers in high school were all so amazing."

Professors noticed her precocity shortly after she arrived on campus. "There was a spark," said Moncrief, who taught Reissman as a freshman and in three subsequent courses. "She had a sense of voice that stood out as very unusual for a young writer."

Shy in person, Reissman found that she could express herself more fully and precisely on paper. "It's a lot easier when you have time to sit there and figure it out to the point where you feel you're saying exactly what you want," she said.

Kerr, a writer of women's fiction who grew up on the Eastern Shore and spent her working life in New York, bequeathed the prize (half of the annual income from her donation to the college) to the senior with the "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor."

Reissman isn't sure what that fulfillment will be in her case. She plans to attend graduate school but first wants to "get my writing to some place I'm comfortable with."

So far, she has written mostly for herself and for professors, but that will change some day. "I like reading writing," she said. "And if I can add to that by writing something that someone else gets some deep pleasure from, that would be nice."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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