Dressed in a white shirt and blue suit, Jarmal Harris looked as dapper as he was quiet and polite yesterday afternoon as he waited for his turn before the audience at Howard University's Blackburn Center.
He was there to take part in a Black History Month speech contest, and the odds were formidable. At 13, he was competing against several students a year older. He had selected a four-minute passage from an obscure play called "The Good Black" by Rob Penny. And he was the only boy in the contest.
So, was Jarmal nervous?
"Nope," he declared, surveying his competitors. "This just makes me more confident."
Confidence was on display in abundance during the hour-long event, sponsored by the Howard chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Organizers said the contest, which they have sponsored since the early 1990s, is designed to increase D.C. public school students' awareness of African American history.
"This helps them develop their public-speaking skills and also be proud of their heritage," said Kimberly Varner, first vice president for the local chapter. "It's a chance to let the students shine."
The contest, for which the contestants were asked to recite passages of speeches, poems or other literature written by African Americans, was open to students in sixth through ninth grades. Although 13 students had signed up to participate, only seven showed, disappointing organizers who had hoped for a full turnout.
Those who came, however, delivered powerful performances. Dominique Daniels of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School opted for an excerpt from "Strivings of the Negro People" by W.E.B. DuBois. Eboni Watkins of Evans Middle School chose King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
"I'm not cute or built to suit a model's fashion size," declared 14-year-old Dora Pacheco of Shaw Junior High, who recited passages from "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou. Dora, who drew the lead-off spot, shook her finger and wiggled her hips during her four minutes in the limelight.
"I like it because in some ways it describes me," Dora said. "It's about a person who is not trying to be all cute to be accepted in life."
Dora and classmates Tenisha Brown and Latisha Samuel, also 14, were entered in the contest by their teacher. At first, their reaction to performing in front of the crowd was a collective, "No way!"
"But then I said yes after my teacher told me more about what it is all about," Tenisha explained.
For 12-year-old Jasmine Stanton of Lincoln Multicultural Middle School, the idea of being in the contest was a no-brainer.
"I wanted to enter to increase my vocabulary and compete with others," she said. Jasmine worked on her speech -- an excerpt railing against execution hangings from "On Capital Punishment" by Sojourner Truth -- for three weeks, committing it to memory.
"She does this better than I do," said her mother, Vera Stanton, who was on hand with eight other family members to root on Jasmine. "I'd be nervous, but she's not nervous. Even when I was in college, this kind of thing was my worst nightmare."
It was anything but a nightmare for Jarmal.
When he took the floor, the 13-year-old Ronald H. Brown Middle School student was transformed. He raised his voice. He pumped his arms. He paced back and forth with a fluid grace.
"I'm fed up, fed up with not getting what I want, even though I've busted my butt for 40 years!" Jarmal declared. "I'm fed up to my limit!"
And by the time he was finished, Jarmal, who says he wants to pursue a theater career, was off to a rousing start: He brought down the house, getting a standing ovation from many of the roughly 70 spectators and winning the $150 first-prize award. Tenisha took second ($100) and Eboni third ($75). The other contestants pocketed $25 apiece.
"You're the only man in the contest," event emcee Donna Crawford-Townsend told Jarmal after he returned to his seat, "but you sure did represent!"