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Learning about the First Amendment changed my life

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Editor’s Note: The Forward is featuring essays, poems and short stories written for our Young Writers Contest. Today’s entry was written by Lilli Libowitz, a 14-year-old student at the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School in Washington, D.C. You can find more work from our young writers here

Three years ago, when I was in fifth grade, I learned about the First Amendment as part of our unit on Supreme Court cases. It was the first time I came alive as a student.

I remember reading different case studies whose topics ranged from race discrimination, to separation of church and state, and even burning the United States flag. I was intrigued and wanted to learn what our rights as citizens truly are. I started to question what is just and why. Although our class study was broad, I found that I was especially drawn to cases involving First Amendment rights. Later that year, I had the opportunity to choose a topic for an independent project - and I knew immediately what I wanted to study. The First Amendment spoke to me personally because I never considered the possibility of not being able to practice Judaism freely and now I knew that those rights derived from the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. I always thought that all journalists could write stories in newspapers and now I knew that the right to Freedom of the Press is derived from the First Amendment. I always felt free to say what I thought about particular issues and now I knew that Freedom of Speech and Expression is protected by the First Amendment.

As I delved into my study of First Amendment cases, I found a passion for learning that I never knew existed. At that time, I was struggling with making friends and I was seeking a feeling of connection or, at the very least, an outlet for self-expression. Academic work became my outlet. I immersed myself in my studies with a deep desire to understand who I was and how my learning would shape me. My First Amendment project not only taught me about issues of justice and standing up for what you believe is right, it also helped me to find my voice, it strengthened my morals, and shaped who I am as a person.

It wasn’t just studying the topic of freedom, it was actually having academic freedom that was so important. Little did I know at the time that academic freedom would shape so much of my middle school experience. The following year, I wrote a literary analysis of Star Girl, and I began to understand the meaning of self-expression and passion. After reading it, I began to fully live. It opened my eyes to the things I’m passionate about. I realized that when I am doing something I am passionate about, it feels as if the world comes to a complete halt and I can live in that certain moment forever. These moments typically occur when I’m performing in a play or rehearsing a dance routine. It’s these moments that make me feel infinite and as if I am part of something bigger than myself. A connection to my deeper self and to the world.

Through my projects on Ancient Egyptian civilizations and Chinese philosophy, I gained a richer understanding of other cultures. I learned how culture shapes beliefs, values, and norms. Learning about different cultures and history helped me embrace and appreciate people that may be different from me.

In my Tanakh class, I learned the stories of my ancestors and the lengths they took to protect and carry on our religion. Learning about some of my ancestors’ inability to practice their faith freely taught me to value my faith more and never take my ability to express it for granted. I have always attended a Jewish day school with a caring and loving community. I’d never been exposed to any other situation, and I found this to be eye-opening.

In my Hebrew class, I write weekly essays on varying topics of my choice. I evolved from writing about my community or books I recommend to writing essays on the women’s suffrage movement. Working on these essays was beneficial towards building my Hebrew skills but also led me to a new connection to my heritage. I now understand the connection that language can bring and value my trips to Israel so much more. My sixth-grade science inquiry project was completely open-ended and it taught me to ask a question. While that might not seem like a big thing, the ability to ask a good question leads you to endless possibilities. At the time, I thought I was merely studying Ph levels. But I was really gaining critical thinking and observational skills that have helped me to this day. These skills help me carry out projects, not just in the field of science. They are assets for me, helping me approach projects with more openness and more confidence.

I experienced academic freedom through every project in which I had a voice and a choice. Academic freedom created a fire within me that strives for growth. That fire encourages me to learn more, achieve more, and better myself as a person. When I look back, the Supreme Court study was a key turning point in discovering who I am. Learning about The Constitution and First Amendment took me out of my bubble and made me think about the world in a different way. A way I never thought I could.

With a stay-at-home order in place and social distancing to limit the spread of disease, we don’t have the freedom to assemble together in person as we usually do but we have freedom to worship and express ourselves. We can’t be physically together in school but we can continue to learn, think, and question.

Academic freedom has given me a window into myself and a window to the world. A window to the world of ideas, the mysteries of science, and the experiences of people not from my community. It has given me insights into who I am as a person and as a student. It sparked in me a passion to continue learning. To me, freedom is the ability to grow, discover, and express yourself in a safe environment. I’m very grateful to have such a wonderful environment and the freedom it gave me to be myself.

Learning about the First Amendment changed my life

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