On the first day of Honors English 2, Courtney Cannon chose a seat in the back of Victoria Zielinski’s class, an unassuming perch to absorb and observe. The reserved Cannon waited to make her presence felt.
“It was a wonderful surprise when I got her first essay,” Zielinski says. “Courtney is intense, deeply thoughtful, and beautifully involved with words and language, which you don’t expect until you read her beautiful work.” It was like a cannonball of a revelation. Zielinski discovered one of Sierra Canyon’s hidden gems in Cannon, a standout senior student who is an emerging poet, an aspiring songwriter, and a quiet powerhouse who is being recognized for Sierra Canyon’s Student First award that honors excellence in and out of the classroom.
“She does a great job at being able to see the mundane in fresh ways,” says Sierra Canyon music teacher Carl Oser, who has Cannon in his songwriting class. “She has the ability to see the magic in the world around her. She has a deep sense of who she is, and she has so much depth in her writing and expressions. Even in her emails, the subject line or salutation is fresh and new. It’s one of her superpowers.”
Cannon maintains a 3.98 grade-point average in a schedule that features honors and Advanced Placement courses. She made the Dean’s List all of her first three years. Cannon’s poetry has been featured in the Sierra Canyon publication The Rambler. She also participated in Oser’s monthly Thursday Night Live Zoom event, a virtual talent show that allows students to share some of their writings or songs. Cannon shared some of her poetry. Every word is carefully chosen. Every idea is intentional and well thought out. There is no cannon fodder here.
“I am really passionate about the world, about finding feelings and emotions and encapsulating who I am through words and music,” Cannon says. “I think I have a good sense of who I am now, I know who I am as an artist, and my energy is always evolving. In the realm of art, I am giving myself time to find my niche.”
Cannon penned a poem for the Rambler called “Where The Bad Things Are,” and it concludes with a powerful line:
How do you know you’re alive,
If there is nothing trying to take it from you?
That grabbed Zielinski’s attention.
“For a young woman of 16—really?” Zielinski said in disbelief. “I really think she’s wise beyond her years.”
Her other two submissions for The Rambler were just as profound. As thought-provoking. As impressive. Her “Meditation” from 2019 is beautifully haunting. Her “Barbaric Yawp” from 2020 was written in the style of Beowulf, featuring a high level of complexity and depth.
“I’ve been writing poems since I was a little girl about pretty much everything,” Cannon said. “It goes hand-in-hand with songwriting. That’s how songs start. They start in space, then that space turns into a song, then you have the melody, and you finish writing.”
Zielinski says she remembers Cannon’s essay about Jane Eyre that completely blew her away because of its profound understanding of the story and the language. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is good. She’s mysteriously brilliant,’” Zielinski says. “She has a beautiful presence. Her work is uniquely good. She has a love affair through the page.”
Oser remembers a quick-hit assignment in his Music Theory class —an Ode to Joy — that Cannon took to another level. “Some students even finished the assignment in class, but she said she had actually lost sleep thinking about it,” Oser says. “She is so in touch with who she is that she knew the assignment did not end with the requirements that I had. She puts in the work, and as an artist, it’s more than turning in the assignment and being done. She sees it as a continuum and an evolution of who she is and where she is going.”
Cannon credits her parents for exposing her to music at a young age. Her mother Pat used to sing to Cannon and her brother, Chris, and make up her own songs. “That’s where my love for songwriting started,” Cannon says. “She always told me to have fun.”
Her father, Rob, and her Uncle Tony played for bands in local clubs. Cannon says she enjoyed going to concerts with her father and fondly remembers a Prince concert at the intimate Beverly Center in 4th Grade. She still has a purple shirt with Prince’s symbol. “That’s one of my favorite shirts, and I thought it was so cool because I wanted to make a symbol for myself like that,” she says. “I just remember Prince interacting with his music so vividly and so deeply, interacting with the audience and sharing his creation with the world. It was really memorable and inspiring.
“I’ve always been around music, and listening to artists and musicians inspired me to create my own language with my words.”
Cannon says she does not want to pigeon-hole herself in one medium or one area of focus. She was a standout soccer player who was part of Sierra Canyon’s 2018 CIF Southern Section Championship squad before tearing her anterior cruciate ligament.
She also joined the school newspaper, takes drawing and painting classes to expand her creativity, and has a passion for science. In the future, she wants to explore a field in Environmental Science or Plant Biology potentially.
“She has a disassociated form of ambition,” Zielinski says. “She does things because she’s interested in them, not because it advances a particular agenda.”
Cannon figures to explore many different avenues and said she has applied to several top-notch liberal arts universities that should help her find her voice: Smith College, Sarah Lawrence College, Reed College, and Vassar. Oser says Cannon has endless possibilities. “She will be able to do anything she wants to do. She expressed a sort of plurality, a wide range of interests. She might choose to do one of those things to be a lead vehicle for her expression or use all her tools and explore all her interests at the same time. We need her authenticity, and we need people who care about what they do like her.”
“There are people who wear many different hats—Courtney will create her own hat.”
to view Courtney’s #StudentFirst video.