This year started with a double portion of student poetry as I was invited to be a judge for Poetry Out Loud in Riverside and San Bernardino.
I expected it to be exactly the same experience as the Riverside event because the goals are the same. When my son was in high school speech and debate we went to a wide variety of locations in California and no matter where we went the experience was a mirror of the one before; not so with Poetry Out Loud. The tone in Riverside is friendly but formal. I am not sure if it is because it is inside of a theater with fixed seating and controlled lighting which impacts conversation and focus. The venue and building seem to give a command that we are there for business and full attention is required. We (parents, students, teachers, and judges) are serious with anticipation and ready for competition. The judges have brief conversations in hushed tones. I didn't notice students talking and laughing with each other and the weather and January 20th protests outside were outside; once inside the theater we entered another world.
In San Bernardino, it was a pleasant sunny day with a light breeze and the feel of a spring day even though it is supposed to be mid-winter. There are two young people sitting next to the fountain in the center of the courtyard of The Garcia Center in San Bernardino. They were relaxed, chatting and enjoying each other's company as though waiting for a class to begin. Later I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the students was in the competition.
The audience is seated in rows in metal folding chairs in, what feels like, a small auditorium. The judges, Tim Hatch, Isabel Quintero, George Hammons and myself are seated in the back of the room at tables and we are enjoying conversations about art shows, writing conferences and teaching positions. The door remains open during the Poetry Out Loud event. However, once the competition begins students are serious, the tension of competition is in the air. and we are all attentive.
As scores are tabulated to announce the winner the program organizer approaches the judges and asks if we want to make comments and we all decline but we are not opposed to having the students talk to us afterwards.
Students are called up one at a time and the winner announced. We applaud and take photos.
This same experience is mirrored in Riverside and the judges are thanked for our time by the event organizer and the father of the winner, Jackson Dean, whom we later find out will compete in Sacramento. It is an enriching experience and we leave with the delight of having seen young people passionately present some of the most well-known selections of poetry.
In San Bernardino we have an after dinner experience of chatting with old friends as families, teachers and judges randomly gather. A young man approaches me and asks what he can do to improve his presentation. It is a moment that teachers dream of when a student is intrinsically motivated and eager to learn for self-enrichment, a sign that this person will be a lifelong learner. There is no scholastic grade attached to this conversation. It is a perfect way to end the event.