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Monday, May 5, 2014

National Poetry SLAM! diary: A weekend of memory making in NYC

In early April, Elementary School Program Coordinator Rachel Klepper accompanied DC SCORES students Skky M. of Imagine Hope Community Charter School and Xavier C. of Arts and Technology Academy to New York City for the 8th Annual America SCORES National Poetry SLAM!. But the trip was more than just the event. Rachel spent three days with Skky, Xavier, and students from 12 other cities during a a special weekend the kids will never forget.

Watch the SLAM! here, look at photos here, and see Xavier's appearance on MSNBC here.


Written by Rachel Klepper 
Elementary School Program Coordinator

On Saturday morning, I met Skky, Xavier and their families at Union Station to take the train to New York City. Everyone was excited, and a little nervous as well -- it was the start of a big trip!

As we navigated our many suitcases through the crowded station, we ran into a surprise guest. Jerome Clemons, who is Skky’s coach at Imagine Hope Tolson Community Charter School, came to see us off! And he brought special presents for Skky and Xavier. They got each got a DC flag and pin so that they could share their DC pride with their new friends and keep a reminder of home while exploring a new city.

We quickly boarded the train and began our journey to New York. On the way, Skky and Xavier got to know each other, talked about their schools and their DC SCORES teams, and played card games. It was both of their first train rides, and they loved it!

When we got to New York, we found our hotel, which was on a busy street right next to Penn Station. We had a couple hours to settle in before dinner. Just looking out of our window on the 25th floor, we could see a sea of yellow taxis, pedestrians, and tall skyscrapers -- we were amazed! Skky and Xavier were surprised by how different New York looked compared to DC, but they couldn’t wait to explore.

At dinner, Skky and Xavier got to meet the 24 other poet-athletes who would be joining them at the National SLAM! and would become their new friends. After we ate, the chaperones all met while the kids went off to get right to work on their poems. As I sat in the chaperone room listening to the plan for the weekend, I could hear the kids chanting and singing, already having so much fun.

After practice, we went up to our rooms. Skky and I stayed with one other chaperone and girls from Milwaukee and St. Louis, and Xavier stayed with two chaperones and three other boys. By bedtime, everyone was so much more relaxed and felt settled in to our hotel. After the first long day, the nerves had disappeared and they were excited to spend time with their friends and for all the adventures to come!

The first priority Sunday was practice. Not only did each poet need to practice their individual poem, perfecting their memorization, annunciation, emotion, and movement, but everyone also needed to learn the group poem. The poets learned that the show would open with all 26 of them on stage, reciting a poem together, with each one having a special line about themselves and their city.

Watching the group poem practice was one of my favorite parts of the weekend. In a matter of days, they went from being 26 kids from states all across the country, to a team that could speak and move in perfect synchronization.

After some time to practice the individual poems in small groups, we ate lunch and then headed out on our first New York City adventure to the Statue of Liberty. By this time, Skky and Xavier had made friends with the other poet-athletes, so they raced on the bus to sit with their friends and pleaded to spend our time on Liberty Island with another group of kids. Of course, the answer was yes! We took a boat to the island and then got to climb the stairs to the pedestal of the statue, where we could look out and see beautiful views of the city.

We returned to the hotel just in time to change into our fancy clothes and head out to dinner at the Marriott in Times Square. Although the walk with 26 children through a packed Times Square at night meant lots of work for the chaperones, it was worth it to see the poet-athletes' wide eyes as they looked around at the blinking billboards and enormous stores. They certainly felt elegant and important as they rode the glass elevator up to the restaurant at the Marriott!

After dinner we returned to our hotel rooms for our pajama parties. In this National SLAM! tradition, each room gets to practice their poems in a fun and relaxed environment, while snacking on popcorn and other treats. In our room the girls practiced while dancing around the room and wearing some of their new souvenirs from NYC!

Soon it was bedtime, and although the girls wanted to stay up chatting all night, we knew that Monday would be a big day and everyone needed their rest.

Monday morning started off with breakfast in our hotel rooms, and then some more practicing of the group poem. After an hour of rehearsal we got on the bus for one of the most anticipated parts of the weekend: soccer in Central Park! Despite the light rain, our poet-athletes were happy to run around the park and play a fun soccer game. It was a great way to distract everyone from their nervousness about the performance.

From Central Park we took the bus right to the New York Stock Exchange, where the Poetry Slam would take place. It was finally almost time! First, though, the group got to practice on stage. Everyone recited their poems until they felt comfortable with the words and the microphone. At this point, everyone was pretty calm, though they were starting to realize that their big moment was getting closer.

Then the time came for the poet-athletes to head downstairs for dinner. They were all distracted by the delicious buffet, and by a surprise visit from soccer star and America SCORES spokesperson Briana Scurry. But little did they know that while they ate and laughed with their friends, hundreds of guests were arriving for the SLAM!. Soon it was time, and the poet athletes donned their matching shirts and neon sunglasses. They walked upstairs and down the center of the audience to take their places backstage.

That was the moment that the atmosphere changed. All around me, the poet athletes were realizing that in a few short minutes they would be up on stage in front of all these people. I could sense the anxiety, but I also could tell how ready they were. I knew that every single one of them was going to be amazing! I felt so happy to be able to be there with them and, along with the other chaperones, give them encouragement as they walked onto the stage to begin the event.

All 26 poet-athletes gave phenomenal performances. Their words captivated the audience, who reacted with smiles, laughs, or tears during the different poems. Each poem gave insight into a child’s life -- including their experience at school, their family, their imagination, or their dreams for the future. Their poems were deep, emotional, funny and inspiring.

After Xavier capped off the performances with his powerful school closing poem, all the students were treated like celebrities as they signed autographs for the guests. They also used their sharpies to sign each other’s shirts, leaving them with a memento of the SLAM! and of their new friends.

By that time, it was late and the poet-athletes were exhausted. However, the night was not over for Xavier. He had been asked to accompany America SCORES director Holly O’Donnell to New York's NBC studios to perform his poem and be interviewed on the Lawrence O'Donnell show.

Despite Xavier's exhaustion, his family and I traveled to the studio and waited until it was time for him to go on camera. Xavier was so poised and articulate on TV. He talked about his trip and his experience in DC SCORES, and performed his poem again. Then, finally, it was time to go back to the hotel for one last night with his roommates.

In the morning, we met to say goodbye to the whole group before getting on the train back home. The weekend was full of so many new and exciting experiences, and I think it is one that Skky and Xavier will never forget! They left feeling very proud of themselves, and ready to tell everyone at home about their trip to New York.

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