Islander Allison Ross, 16, is the winner of a $25,000 Davidson Fellowship award for her literature portfolio exploring the relationship between classical Western and African hero mythologies. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Reno, Nev., which supports profoundly gifted youth, gave the award.
“This is a great honor,” Ross said.
Turning the themes of contemporary African and African-American authors and Classical Western mythology into a 200-plus-page graduate level thesis has been a two-year writing project for Ross.
Ross explains her work in the following way:
By highlighting the interconnectivity of literature, mythology and human nature, “African and Western Heroes’ Journeys in Literature: An Exemplification” is designed to provide readers with insights into their own searches for identity. The work is intended to supplement a freshman college or high school Honors English curriculum to benefit students and instructors by drawing connections between pre-colonial African literature and Classical Western mythology. The work provides both an academic and creative foundation upon which these two bodies of literature may be studied together.
The work, Ross writes, “brings both Classical Western and pre-colonial African literature to life and draws cross-cultural connections, applying traditional academic analyses to the roots of African and African-American literature. By stylistically imitating select African, African-American and Western authors, against the backdrop of August Wilson’s fiction and the constructs of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Cycle,” the work examines the derivations, common motives and cultural differences between Classical Western and African heroes.”
Students [who utilize the text], she continues, will study Homer, Virgil and Sophocles. They are introduced to Carl Jung’s concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ and Joseph Campbell’s Hero Cycle. They read modern authors like August Wilson, Toni Morrison, and Wole Soyinka. The “Exemplification” provides specific connections between three Classical Western canons, an analysis of what constitutes a “hero” in literature, and the pre-colonial origins of the heroes created by traditional and modern African and African-American authors.”
Through this work, the author hopes that others will share her enthusiasm for exploring the themes that unite our heritages.
Mercer Island High School teacher, Curtis Johnston, mentored Ross in her endeavor.
Her research began in Ashland, Ore., over four years ago when she read and saw her first August Wilson play. In April of 2008, after a post-matinee discussion of the play “Fences,” Ross introduced herself to G. Valmont Thomas, an actor in the production, and she told him of her interest in August Wilson. As part of her final project in English that year, she read Wilson’s “Century Cycle.” She spoke with Thomas again during a subsequent visit to the Festival and discussed the similarities between Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and the themes in Wilson’s plays.
Mr. Thomas recommended books containing anthologies of African mythology. Ross read these and other books regarding both Classical Western and African mythologies, and modern authors such as Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
“This body of literature opened up a whole new world for me,” she said.
In the following school year, with the support of the Mercer Island High School English department, she wrote what she calls the “Exemplification.”
Ross has a great deal going for her. As an eighth-grader, she took the SATs and got a perfect score in Critical Reading (800) and one wrong in the Writing (780) section. In ninth and 10th grade, she studied Latin and earned two Gold Medals on the National Latin Exams. During this past year, she took both the AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition exams and scored 5’s (the highest score) on both.
Ross also competed with the MIHS cross country teams, plays the trumpet and earned a black belt in Karate when she was 12.
Ross said that she does not like labels such as “gifted” or “talented” because, she said, “I benefited from figuring out the best way I like to learn on my own.”
“Being accelerated” doesn’t fit either, she said, because she prefers “staying in one place and really digging into a subject.”
Of the process, she said, “My English teachers at Mercer Island High School always encouraged me and indirectly guided my learning. I learned as much about writing and myself as I did about my subject.”
The scholarship is an unrestricted educational grant that may be used at any accredited institute of learning.
Ross will be leaving her studies at Mercer Island High School, where she would be a junior this year. Instead, she will be a freshman in the Honors Program at the University of Washington this fall. She has not yet focused on one area of study, as she is interested in both the humanities and the sciences.
“I am interested in how ideas are communicated in all disciplines and would like to continue to develop innovative curricula that challenge conventional thought and cultivate an appreciation for learning,” she said.