When Michael Lang immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 2002, the 9-year-old expected to see a tall, silver-haired man in a top hat welcome him to his new country.
"Three years later, I became a citizen," he explained. "By this time, I was old enough to realize Uncle Sam was not a real person, but a unique and powerful symbol that Americans use to represent our country."
He wrote about his process of defining the icon in his essay, which won the Carson City School Board's annual American Citizen Essay Contest.
The theme for this year's contest, which is open to all Carson City students, was: Who is Uncle Sam? Winners, chosen from 102 entries, were recognized during Tuesday's board meeting, with first-place recipients from each grade category reading their submissions.
Fritsch Elementary fifth-grader Nura Tung wrote about the origin of Uncle Sam, tracing the roots to the War of 1812 and meat packer Samuel Wilson, who provided supplies to the U.S. Army.
He stamped packages with the emerging moniker for the relatively new country, U.S.
"Many workers confused the initials as Uncle Sam," Nura explained.
The persona evolved over the years into the lanky patriot we know today.
"Uncle Sam is important to us Americans because he is one of the icons of the United States," she wrote. "He is the human personification of America. So long as America lives, Uncle Sam lives."
Carena Doyle, a Bethlehem Lutheran Middle School student, began her winning essay with a question.
"'I want you!' He wants who? Me! And what does he want?"
She went on to answer her own question.
"Uncle Sam - he wants you! He wants me! He is the call of duty. He prods our conscience. He reminds us who we are and where we came from," she wrote. "He is not Mr. Sam, but Uncle Sam. He joins our personal family to the great history of our great country."
Lang concluded Uncle Sam to be a more ambivalent figure, seen as an "enemy and oppressor" to some and a "savior and liberator to others."
"To most of us, he simply represents the federal government in Washington, D.C.," he wrote. Most Americans grudgingly send in their tax payments but jump for joy over a refund, or when old enough, the receipt of that first Social Security check.
"In any case, Americans see him the way they would a real uncle, one who can be demanding and rewarding."
First-place winners received $250 savings bonds.