Ask a group of elementary students what the United States means to them and you might get a few interesting replies. Supply them with a blank canvas, crayons and markers after asking the question and you're bound to get meaningful expressions of patriotism.
Local certified public accounting firm Johnson Jacobson Wilcox discovers as much every year when it selects an elementary school to provide the artwork for its Fourth of July company postcard. The school, chosen based on the number of free lunches it provides, holds an art contest in which students are asked to convey an American-themed message. The winner earns a basket of art supplies and the school is presented with one of those giant checks for $5,000.
This year's recipient was Kit Carson College Preparatory Academy of Creative Arts and Technology. The school announced its winner during an awards ceremony that parents also attended. The entries dazzled judges. The stories behind them highlighted that, depending on whom you ask, the American experience is vastly different from citizen to citizen. Even for the littlest of this country's citizens.
Nine-year-old Ayana Curtis drew two women, one black and one white, standing on a street. Exploding fireworks and the American flag are all that separate them. The words "Celebrating Our Independence" float at the top of the page in crooked penmanship.
The morning of the awards ceremony, she explained that the two women represent the most important people in her life: "My mom and my sister." Ayana and her parents are black. Her older stepsister, through her father's marriage, is white.
Her mom, Marquita Hunt, commonly addresses the subject of race equality in their home. When our country elected its first black president four years ago, the conversation took a turn.
"When I was a kid and looked at a book of presidents, none of them looked like me," she says. "Now I tell her: 'You can be president. If he can do it, and with a single mom, so can you.' "
Samantha Jo Ciroux, 11, crafted one of the most intricate drawings entered in the contest. An eagle, mountains and the American flag are all featured. A soldier, in camouflage fatigues, stands at attention with a globe behind him. "USA" is marked in bold black letters.
Samantha Jo's older half sister leaves to the Air Force soon to "pay for college." It makes her "sad and proud." Samantha Jo moved to the United States from France at age 3. She has dual citizenship.
"I'm very proud to be an American because no matter what you look like you always have equal rights. And, in France you have to be 18 to drive, but here they let you at 16," she says. "To me, that shows responsibility."
Her mom, Cynthia Marx, first lived in France as a teenage American foreign exchange student. The French kids all thought she was cool, simply for being American. "That all changed," says Marx. She moved back as an adult and lived there during 9/11. The sentiment toward Americans turned to one of bitter resentment.
She's raising her daughter in the same country she grew up in, but to the rest of the world, it's an entirely different country.
"People associate you with where you came from," says Marx, who recently explained the DREAM Act to Samantha Jo, "but it's really about where home is to you. I hope her knowledge will extend so that she's a global citizen one day. ... I hope our administration will be proactive about our global relations."
This year's Johnson Jacobson Wilcox art contest winner is an 8-year-old student named Chiana Fields. It remained a tightly kept secret until the awards assembly. When she heard her name called, Fields timidly stood to accept her basket of art supplies as her father, Jowel Anderson, gave his daughter a one-man standing ovation. He pointed at his daughter with eyes close to tears, then clapped as loudly as he smiled.
Anderson immediately got on his cellphone to call Chiana's mother, who couldn't get time off from her hotel housekeeping job to make it to the assembly. He's currently unemployed.
"It's been rough, but I've been trying to support my daughter in other ways," he says. Accompanying her on field trips and attending awards assemblies are just a couple of examples.
You might say the economy has created an "uphill battle" for his family. That could explain why Chiana's picture shows her family walking up a grassy hill toward a universal image of "liberty" as fireworks burst in small colorful specks throughout the sky. Her father wears a crown.
The inspiration was simple. "I just looked at a picture of the Statue of Liberty," Chiana says, "and I thought of my dad, my mom and me."
Contact Xazmin Garza at email@example.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.