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Thursday, May 13, 2010

National Poetry SLAM! diary: NY-style pizza, incredible performances and amazing poet-athletes

On April 19, two outstanding poet-athletes represented DC alongside 24 of their peers from across the country in the 2010 National Poetry SLAM! The special event took place at the New York Stock Exchange, where students ages 10-13 displayed their individual talents and community spirit with inspiring poetry. However, the performance simply capped off an unforgettable few days in The Big Apple. Zach Elkin, DC SCORES’ Elementary School Program Coordinator, was on hand:

I had the pleasure to chaperone Burrville’s Jasia S., 9, and Raymond’s James P., 11, to New York City. They had not previously met, but immediately formed a big brother/little sister relationship that endured throughout the trip. When the outline of the Manhattan skyline came into view from our train, I directed Jasia's and James’ eyes out the window. “Wow,” they said simultaneously. “That’s so cool.”

The first evening, we decided to eat at a local diner. “This is the biggest menu I’ve ever seen!” one of them exclaimed. “Breakfast for dinner!?” They loved the food and atmosphere so much, they lobbied to eat there again for breakfast on the way out of town.

At night, a chaperone from San Francisco and I were responsible for James and four other boys. Before bed, each student recited their poetry, pretending that the hotel rug was their stage and we were the audience. This was my first chance to hear some of the amazing creativity and hard work that SCORES students from California to Wisconsin had put into this weekend.

The next morning at the City Year New York headquarters, students interacted and played “getting to know you” games, and received individual advice on their poems from poetry specialists. After an entire morning of important but often tedious practice, the students boarded a bus to Central Park.

At the park, students split into teams to scrimmage. Normally a goalkeeper, James decided to try the forward position, and used his strength and vision to always be around the ball. Jasia, unaccustomed to goalie play, also stepped out of her comfort zone and played a terrific keeper, stopping many shot attempts and wowing staff with her powerful punts and goal kicks. With each pass, teammates formed new bonds that didn’t exist just 24 hours prior.

That evening, with all the students and chaperones dressed in their formal attire, we boarded a bus to the South Street Seaport area where we were welcomed by gracious staff at the Harbour Lights Restaurant. Jasia and James refused to turn down any of the countless hors d'oeuvres being served despite me pointing to the placards designating the various kid-friendly entrĂ©e choices and cautioning that a full dinner awaited us. From spaghetti and meatballs to apple pie and ice cream, the entire night the poet-athletes were treated like kings and queens – true VIPs.

On Monday morning, Jasia’s father met us at the entrance to the Museum of the American Indian, and together with James and I, we toured the various exhibits and answered the questions on the scavenger hunt sheet.

After James and Jasia finished the scavenger hunt, we explored the Battery Park area of the city and stopped for slices of New York pizza. James and Jasia each got enormous pepperoni slices. “It’s so big you have to fold it!” exclaimed Jasia. We then decided to take a short walk on the harbor, and Jasia and James bought Statue of Liberty hats and had their picture taken with the real statue in the background.

Soon enough, it was time to reconvene at the museum and get ready to head to the New York Stock Exchange to begin final preparations for the SLAM!

The excitement grew walking down Wall Street, and strangers seemed intrigued by the large group of students heading toward the NYSE. When the students had passed through security and were dressed in their performance attire, America SCORES staff led them in some vocal warm-ups and began final rehearsals for the big night.

After over an hour of practice, the students enjoyed a tour of the NYSE and were featured during the closing bell ceremony. While some students stood on the exchange floor as the final bell rung, others packed the balcony and clapped along with America SCORES president Norma Barquet, US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati and Fred Popp, Board Chair of America SCORES. A few minutes later, the kids filed back into the auditorium, beaming and holding their bell ringing ceremony medals.

As 7:30 p.m. approached and guests made their way upstairs from the pre-event reception and auction on the stock exchange floor, we all took time to collect our thoughts and get mentally prepared. For 10 minutes, the room of students sat silent, many with their heads in their arms, some with closed eyes, all preparing themselves for the big stage. Quietly weaving my way around the room, I saw focus, determination and confidence in every poet-athlete, each ready to impress the audience with their poetry.

And oh how the poet-athletes impressed. Comfortable, courageous and inspirational, students delivered their best performances of the weekend. Their voices were the loudest, posture the firmest, and their overall stage presence the most confident yet. It was obvious to the chaperones and staff that the students had really geared up for the event and put it all out there on stage.

Each poet’s final words elicited a roaring applause (and often tears) from the amazed audience. For the finale, the students performed their rehearsed group poem, each speaking to their home communities, screaming their city names to the crowd. To close the poem, the students shouted, “It’s time to celebrate America SCORES!”

As the instant celebrities enjoyed an assortment of sweets post-SLAM!, they signed event programs to give to fans and posed for pictures. I stepped to the back of the room to get a panoramic view – and the poets were relaxed, joking and laughing with their peers who had been strangers just a few days prior.

It was a truly an unforgettable moment for me – to see these students from different parts of the country, different shapes, ages, and personalities, sharing this wonderful moment as a SCORES community.

In my room back at the hotel, the boys were wildly excited, jumping around to the point that our downstairs neighbors believed a gymnastics practice was taking place. But that lasted just 15 minutes before one student from Dallas asked that everyone quiet down and gather around the bed. He wanted to watch a 9/11 documentary he purchased earlier that day, which he thought we should see as a group.

I asked everyone individually if they were comfortable with this idea and told them it was perfectly acceptable if they refused to watch. Each boy said they thought it was important to see the events that took place when many of them were just 3 years old. So the six of us huddled around my laptop and for 20 minutes sat silently, almost breathless, as we took in the horrific images and stories. At its conclusion, we discussed why 9/11 happened, what it meant for the United States, and how it affected them.

For me, this was the ultimate finale to cap the weekend. To be around such thoughtful, creative, understanding, and mature young adults was a true blessing.

On the NYSE stage each student displayed their enormous talents, but off the stage is where their true character shined.

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