Mikayla Ockels, Sussex 4-H’er wins Delaware essay contest

Mikayla OckelsSussex County 4-H member Mikayla Ockels, 14, has won the 2013 Delaware State Education Association Read Across America student contest, part of a national effort  to encourage reading.

Ockels, a 9th grader at Sussex Central High School in Millsboro, was one of 240 entrants from the First State. Students could submit a poster, video or research essay, depending on their grade level.  The News Journal donated a full- page color spread celebrating all the winners.

“I love to read and I love to write,” says Ockels, whose writing talents won her Third Place in a national bee essay in 2011. Her teacher in the medical-clinical pathway,  Melanie Marshall, RN, also knew of Mikayla’s fondness for the written word and urged her student to submit an essay for consideration.

Read Across America focuses on the literary works of Theodor Geisel, better known to millions of youth and adult readers as Dr. Seuss. At the high school level, students were asked to consider Seuss’s 1984 The Butter Battle Book. While considered primarily as a children’s author, Seuss infused his tales with deeper meanings.  Ockels was challenged to consider the metaphors Seuss intended in his satire on the Cold War – a conflict that was still active when the book was published in 1984. Mikayla was also asked to tie the book’s themes to a modern conflict. For that, Mikayla chose the Middle East.

In just under 900 words, Ockels analyzed Dr. Seuss’s message. In The Butter Battle Book, serious, war-like tension exists between the feuding Zooks and Yooks who live on opposite sides of a long wall. The division cuts through peoples and cultures. The opposing citizens are defined and judged by what side of a slice of bread they choose to butter.  The Zooks insist on eating their bread with the butter side down and Yooks consider the right honest way is to consume the slice with the butter side up.

“The message of the book is to showcase how conflicts that affect humanity can be so silly,” Ockels said. “People need to step back and look at the situation from a different perspective, rather than escalate a conflict,” she added.

In her essay, Ockels elaborated, “The wall separating the Zooks and the Yooks is a direct representation of the Berlin Wall, drawing a line that divides a group of people that might have worked together, shared ideas, and benefited from each other.” Ockels continued in her summary, “Dr. Seuss was trying to demonstrate the unnecessary controversy that can rise from a case of close-mindedness…Dr. Seuss recognized the necessity of coexisting, working with, instead of against, people.” You can read Ockels winning essay here.

A week after submitting the essay, Ockels learned she had won. She was offered her choice of a $200 savings bond or a $100 gift certificate from Barnes & Noble and chose the latter. She is eager to visit the bookstore and think about new titles she will add to her library.  For submitting a winning essay, her teacher will receive an e-reader, and Ockels’ 9th grade class will receive a pizza party. “We are pretty excited about that,” Ockels exclaimed.

Ockels commutes to school with her mother Cindy, the school nurse at Sussex Central. Arriving an hour earlier than most students each day, Mikayla, an active member of her school’s FFA, spends the extra time tending to the goats on campus. Her 4-H life is very busy as well.  Mikayla is a member of the Sussex County 4-H Livestock Club, Sussex 4-H Junior Council and the Harbor Lights 4-H Club, where she serves as club president. Earlier in March, Mikayla  participated in the state 4-H Horse Bowl, where her team won First Place in the senior division. In February, Ockels won the Sussex County 4-H Public Speaking Contest in her age category and will advance to the state competition in July at the Delaware State Fair. For Mikayla, it’s been a  successful winter, “I am looking for things to quiet down a little bit,” she adds. Likely, Ockels will not stay idle for too long.  With a straight-A average to maintain and three and a half years of high school remaining, Ockels’s goal is to become a veterinarian. In her spare time, she is busy with the family farm in Milton, tending chickens, beehives and horses. With parents Cindy and Richard, and younger brother Benjamin, Mikayla enjoys traveling in the summer, exploring America’s natural treasures. She’s been to 32 states so far.

Family, friends, educators, including those in 4-H, have inspired Mikayla Ockels to achieve. “4-H has given me life skills – people skills,” Ockels reflected. “It’s helped me with organization and speaking in front of people.” Together her support system has been a recipe for a well-grounded perspective for a 14-year old. One could say, Mikayla knows what side of her bread is buttered on.

It was irresistible not to ask.  Ockels must have seen the question coming.  “I put so much butter on it bleeds through to the other side!” she laughed.


Article & Photo by Michele Walfred