Nessacus class poetry slam spotlights young voices of vulnerability and of hope
Fourteen volunteered to participate in a slam-style poetry event, their words and performances being ranked on a scale from 1-10 by a panel of parent and teacher judges. The nervous excitement of the young debuting poets felt noticeable from the beginning. You could almost hear the cool May air humming with tension.
MacKenzie Carr was the first to go. Part way through her poem, she took a pause to let a few of the tears that had begun welling in her eyes softly roll down her cheeks. Her classmates gently encouraged her to continue.
"My cousin was involved in the Parkland school shooting," she explained after reading her poem.
The thought of almost losing one of her favorite relatives at such a young age still haunts this middle schooler, who composed the poem two weeks after the deadly incident.
Reading her poem, she said, made her "emotional. It felt surreal. It brings [the incident] back to my mind."
Carr wasn't the only student to feel the weight of the words shared into the early afternoon.
Brady Farley, a self-described bigger guy dressed in a green Boston Celtics T-shirt a pair of grey athletic shorts and Adidas sneakers, moved his excitable classmates' faces to more somber expressions as he talked about a bigger battle in life than being bullied — having a parent who is fighting for their life. "My mother is my spark in my life. She almost died two times," he told them.
Instead of fighting each other, he suggested to the students, "We can fight for our lives together."
The event, orchestrated by English teacher Kimberly Lagerwall, clearly offered students more than a lesson in language usage and grammar. It evoked empathy. The judging responsibilities were shared in rounds by Principal Peter Falkowski; teachers Lynn Duquette, Stephen Laurin and Andrew Garcia, parent Marie Naef, and some waitstaff. The easy atmosphere created by the judges — whose scores ranged between 8.5 and 10 — seemed to put a lot of the students at ease and allowed them to gain confidence in their speaking.
A free lunch al fresco also helped sweeten the deal and lighten the mood.
Lagerwall said that students had a choice whether to prepare poems to be read aloud or to compile their poetry into a portfolio. Those who chose to read prepared their presentations by watching YouTube videos of other spoken word performers and winners, writing and revising their own poetry and using time in and out of class to practice the performance aspect of it. Some students performed individually, while others performed in pairs, alternating lines or reading their verse in chorus.
"This is a dream here," said Lagerwall of the event. "Finally the students have gotten to a place where they trust me or find trust in the classroom as a place to be so vulnerable. They took so many risks here today."
Autumn Ochs, for example talked about "feeling insecure about your four-eyes, your metal mouth," and hiding one's true being.
In fact, with few exceptions, describing personal vulnerabilities were an ongoing theme of the work.
Prior to the public reading the students were coached and mentally prepared, said Lagerwall. "We were very encouraging and reassured them they emotion is part of the poetry," she said.
Winning poet, Ashlyn Wood, offered two forthright and formidable readings, the latter which was read as a tie-breaker in the contest. She had never done public speaking before and said she felt not only surprised by the results, but empowered and encouraged to do more spoken word.
"I'm a girl of many insecurities and I know many people who have them too. I've gained more confidence in the past 10 minutes than in anything I've ever done," she said.
As she noted in her tie-breaker poem, while the students' words may be imperfect, "These poems mean something to someone somewhere. ... We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race."
Jenn Smith is an Eagle staff writer and editor. Keenan Provencher is an intern from Westfield State University.
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