As Vienna-area student Conner Tadlock read previous winning entries in preparation for entering the 2018 Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association’s (TOGA) Youth Writing Contest earlier this year, he noticed most of those essays read like term papers.
Tadlock, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Kilmer Middle School, took a markedly different tack and wrote “‘My Life,’ by Chester the Chesapeake Oyster,” which told an oyster’s story from a “first-mollusk” perspective.
“It was about the life of an average oyster, how he started out, what problems he’s facing and what people can do to help,” he said.
Chester starts out as an oyster larva, smaller than a grain of rice, floating around the Chesapeake Bay. He lands upon an old oyster reef, builds upon it and begins cleaning the water and filtering out food.
“I kind of wanted to make my essay a little bit different and make it easy to understand,” he said. “It’s not only for people in the TOGA organization, but for kids and younger people who might find it more entertaining.”
That unorthodox approach earned Tadlock a second-place award in the essay contest. The competition, co-sponsored by People’s Community Bank, was open to all Virginia middle-school students, including home-schooled ones.
The winners presented their essays March 30 at TOGA’s annual membership meeting, held at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. The contest’s first-place winner, Kristin Blake, and third-place finisher, Riley Tripp, both hail from Thomas Hunter Middle School in Mathews, Va.
Association leaders awarded cash prizes of $150, $100 and $50 to the respective first-, second- and third-place finishers. Tadlock has no immediate plans for his winnings and likely will deposit them in a savings account.
Each winning writer also received an oyster cage. Not living close enough to a suitable place for raising oysters, Tadlock gave his cage to his grandparents, who grow oysters near the Corrotoman River in Lancaster County on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
Tadlock’s essay tells how the bay’s lower salinity strains oysters, saps their energy and makes them susceptible to pathogens and diseases that eventually kill them.
The essay also discusses how people can grow oysters and introduce them into the bay. In addition, people can throw oyster shells back into the bay, as these provide foundations where the saltwater bivalve mollusks can live, he said.
Tadlock researched six or seven Websites for information about oysters. His essay also delves into the problem of over-harvesting and urges people to catch only the amount of oysters they need.
“One fact that I found really interesting was that an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day,” Tadlock added.
Tadlock’s parents are Scott and Lillian Sun Tadlock. He also has two older sisters, one of whom, Catherine, won the TOGA essay contest in 2016 with an account of her father’s family’s oystering business in the 1920s.
Conner Tadlock is an honor student at Kilmer Middle School, plays Ultimate Frisbee and has been a trumpet player since fourth grade. He soon will audition for George C. Marshall High School’s band and may pursue engineering or business when he gets to college.
A Life Scout with Troop 1128, he is seeking several more merit badges and is designing a project help him earn an Eagle Scout award.
Tadlock also long has had a keen interest in conservation.
“Ever since I was really young, I’ve loved going outside and looking at insects and nature,” he said. “I love going to parks and nature centers and joining camps there to learn about the outdoors.”
His mother was impressed by the clever angle of her son’s winning essay and said it had crossed the family’s mind to turn Chester’s saga into a children’s book.
“Stranger things have happened, right?” she said. “It could be a movie deal. Who knows? It could be a syndicated-cartoon deal for all we know.”
Her son has not tried raw oysters on the half-shell, but loves fried ones.
“He’s a good cook, but he’s not tried cooking oysters yet because they’re kind of too expensive to mess with,” his mother said. “He does appreciate a well-cooked oyster.”