This weekend I had the pleasure of being one of the judges for the national finals of NAACP's Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition, in Crystal City, Virginia. I've been a judge and assisted a few of the young people involved here in Baltimore, but this was the first time I'd been to the Nationals.
I confess to being somewhat less than enthusiastic about doing the local competition, because I'm not really a 'slam' or 'spoken word' person, and the majority of the work that gets submitted falls into that category. I worry that I might not be fair to the young people since it's 'not my style'. However, more often than not I do it, thanks to some discussions about this subject with other current and former poet-judges, and because I do know and enjoy the work of a number of spoken word artists. We all recognize the fact that, while yes the poem comes to life on stage, but its really not going to be strong if the craft isn't there beforehand on the page as well. As much as I moan and complain about having to get up early on a Saturday morning to do it, the talent and enthusiasm of the kids always energizes me the moment I get there. And the last time I judged, someone turned in a sonnet -- so much for stereotyping the Younger Generation!
I always wind up feeling a great deal more hopeful about that Younger Generation and the future of the country after doing the local event, and Nationals was no different, just on a larger scale. It was amazing to see a hotel filled with bright and highly talented black teenagers, buzzing with excitement and energy. Walking through the halls one had to be careful not to bump into someone leaping to the ceiling, practicing for the Dance competition, or interrupt young actors and actresses running lines with proud moms, dads, aunts or uncles looking on. The energy, drive, and sheer mindboggling ambition of these kids was extraordinary. Most of the young people I talked to were looking forward to pursuing double majors in college, and one young man aspired to both double majors and double minors. He made the rest of us 'old heads' seem like real slackers.
Some of the other judges included photographers Linda Day and Carl Clark, my friends and poets Kwame Alexander, and Linda Joy Burke, and others. I judged the Original Essay category, along with poet, filmmaker, and editor of the new anthology Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces, Michelle Sewell. Before coming to Nationals and meeting the students we had to read and evaluate 48 essays, over a wide range of topics from African-American role models to quantum mechanics. In some ways, our talks with the students felt almost like mini-dissertation defenses: come in, discuss what you wrote and why you wrote it, try to win over the panel.
What is this thing called Essay?
Oddly enough, the question we asked just about every student also turned out to be the hardest for them to answer: What is an Essay? We could tell from our reading that surprisingly few knew what it was, and its form. In the Original Essay category we got short stories, speeches, memoirs, term and research papers, religious praise pieces, but very few actual essays. For most of the kids, they answered the question with 'TO ME, an essay...' and usually wound up by saying that it could be pretty much whatever kind of thing they wanted to write. A couple said "I don't like rules, so I broke them." At least they were being true to themselves and their definitions, or lack thereof, in the work.
Back to The Black Table
It was striking how many of the young people we saw were 'the only' or 'one of the few' black kids at predominantly white schools. Michelle and I were both curious about their experiences there, and whether, as Michelle said to one, the "MTV Generation" is really seeing beyond race and just accepting people as they are. THe sad report from the youngsters we spoke to is that this is not the case. Kids are facing some of the same kinds of comments, "jokes," and lack of understanding that people in my generation faced. One young man's paper was in fact about this very problem. While the media may appear to be more mulitcultural than in the past, it appears that old attitudes and mindsets die hard.
No Boyz Allowed?
Of the 48 entrants, only 12 were male. There were a number of other young men throughout the Nationals in other categories, but I hope the relatively small number of guys with essays does not mean that men aren't into writing.
Page vs Personality
One of the most striking things we noticed was the 'disconnect' between what the young people wrote and who they were and how they came across in person. Extremely bright, high energy, passionate kids would come in having written solid, fact filled, but ultimately slightly plodding papers. Why wasn't that drive and energy on the page? They could talk very eloquently and vibrantly about topics, be it the role of women in Afganistan, stem cell research, or affirmative action, but somehow they felt that when writing about it they had to be stiff, formal, and a bit pedantic. Time and again Michelle and I wished that the kids we talked to had put some part of their wonderful selves on the page. How are kids being taught writing these days? What are they taught?
What does the 'A' stand for?
Related to that, we were also somewhat suprised by the number of kids who proclaimed themselves to be in AP English whose work to our minds didn't seem to be at that level. I can think of only one paper I read from someone who said they were in AP seemed to show their work in that class to me, by the complexity of their sentence structure and some of the words they used. The others...
It was a VERY full day for us. We saw our first young person at 9 am, and, after breaks for lunch and dinner, sent the last one off after midnight. The the energy, intelligence, drive, ambition, and sheer joy and exuberance coming off these kids kept us going throughout the day. And there were a number of truly wonderful surprises as well. Kids who wrote astonishing, moving and at times horrific stories about their growing up turned out to be some of the most sharp, polished and put together young people we'd ever met. They managed to (WARNING: Cliche Alert!) not only survive but thrive -- truly inspiring. Although they may not know what an essay is, we ran into some 'real writers' in our group, young people with great eyes for telling detail, color, who know how to pace their writing, and one young lady who had a near-professional ability with handling transitions in time (we strongly encouraged her to continue the mini-memoir she had turned into us, and Michelle wishes she'd had her piece for the Growing Up Girl anthology, it was that fantastic).
We met a future political speechwriter (either that or he's the next Bill Clinton -- and a future Hillary was there as well), budding Opera and classical music composers (which really excited me:), future neurosurgeons, doctors, physicists, and psychologists, mathematicians and 17-year-old entreprenures with their own brochures. One bright but somewhat shy young man sadly didn't realize he also has a natural, very amusing, dry wit. Another we wished we could connect with a third entrant's parents to give him a bit more focus. One paper had us crying out for an editor to take just one quick pass at it, since it was this shy of being something really special. In another case, we were sorry to hear an entrant say she had changed the name of her work at someone else's suggestion because the title we thought would be the 'better fit' for it was in fact the one she originally had.
It was a great couple of days, and almost heartbreakingly inspiring. These are the kids one wants to introduce to counter the stereotypes about 'troubled black youth', or to answer concerns about 'the future of young people in this country'. If these kids are a snapshot of what's really going on out there, and if adults don't mess them up, overall I think we'll be fine.
Just keep them away from AP English!