McManus Middle School sixth-grader Isabella Buss, whose parents emigrated from Brazil, won $200 for first place in the VFW “Patriots Pen” essay contest on “Why I Honor the American Flag.” 


By Gary Miller

When Isabella Buss stands to salute the flag each morning, her mind is no longer on her sixth-grade class at McManus Middle School. Instead, she is thinking of all that her parents went through to come to America from Brazil and how grateful she is that that struggle has allowed her to build a life here.

“My mom said that when she passed the citizenship test, she cried when she first said the Pledge of Allegiance,” Isabella said. “That’s what I think of when I salute the flag.”

That deep appreciation for where she came from and for her life in America — combined with a love and talent for writing — helped Isabella take first place in the Veterans of Foreign Wars “Patriots Pen” essay contest for middle school students. The topic was “Why I Honor the American Flag.” She was selected by a panel of judges led by former Mayor Richard J. Gerbounka and including the leaders of Linden VFW John Russell Wheeler Post No. 1397.


Isabella gets $200 for her winning essay, and now will be entered into the VFW contest for all of Union County. Two runners-up, Kiley Winkler and Rodes Safe, both seventh-graders from Soehl Middle School, won $150 each.

“Isabella’s was a very well-written essay,” Gerbounka said, “and the theme was extraordinary — the fact that she is an immigrant and so proud to be an American.”

teacher and student posing

McManus Middle School social studies teacher Anthony Ventura with sixth-grade student Isabella Buss.

Isabella entered the contest after learning about it from social studies teacher Anthony Ventura. Ventura said that as soon as he read the essay, he knew it was special.

“There was a part in it where she quoted part of the Pledge of Allegiance,” he said. “It means something special to her every day. When I read that part of the essay, I knew it was a strong essay. That’s what got me, her personal connection to it. I guess whoever graded it found the same thing to be true.”

The passage Ventura was referring to reads as follows:

“I honor the American Flag, as a symbol of appreciation, because my parents, as immigrants, chose this country to live, looking for a better life. So, every time I recite the ‘Pledge of Allegiance,’ looking at our flag, and I say the words ‘indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all’ I have a strong feeling of gratitude. Our flag reminds me of the opportunity of a new life for my family in America, and also for many others.”

Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi said he was very impressed by Isabella’s essay.

“It was so mature and well thought out,” he said. “One of my favorite parts was when she wrote that the flag gives us ‘a strong sense of belonging.’ That sense of family and togetherness is so important to our country today, and especially here in Linden, where our incredible diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Thank you to Isabella for highlighting that!”

Ventura said that the essay contest is just one area where Isabella has shown her talents, calling her “the kind of student who makes a teacher look good.” She maintains an A average and was selected as Ventura’s Student of the Month for November.

student posing with bobbleheads of presidents behind her.

Isabella Buss completed teacher Anthony Ventura's presidents challenge, naming all 45 presidents in order in front of the class.

He said she also completed his marking period challenge of standing in front of class and reciting all 45 presidents in order. Ventura said the challenge was designed to give extra credit to students who are trying to lift their grades.

Although Isabella’s grade needed no such help, she’s not one to pass up a challenge.

“I think she’s the kind of student where if there’s an opportunity to do more or showcase her skills, she’s not one to turn it down,” Ventura said. “The presidents challenge is a perfect example of that. She was the first in the class to do it, to lead by example.”

He related her push for excellence in the classroom back to her essay theme of being a child of immigrants.

“I don’t think she takes anything for granted,” Ventura said.

Isabella said she especially likes writing and learning about history. She wants to learn more about the Aztecs, and related a story of visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in fourth grade to learn more about immigration.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It was a great experience.”

She is also planning to continue her writing pursuits in an essay contest her mother told her about. Students are asked to imagine that their parent is a Greek god.

“You have to write something about how you met your mythical parent,” she said. “I chose Apollo, because he likes poetry, art, and music, and I like those things too.”

2 runners-up pose in front of flag

Kiley Winkler and Rodes Safe, both seventh-graders at Soehl Middle School, each won $150 in the VFW "Patriot's Pen" essay contest.