Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect order for the second- and third-place contestants. Nick Hyman came in second, and Bernice Kear was third. This version has been corrected.
Against the backdrop of a runway
With the roar of the engines
Teenage voices rise and fall,
Their poems perfectly punctuated by the takeoffs of planes outside
Young voices telling of stories before their time but whose legacies remain.
I want to fly like Bessie Coleman.
I want to be the person who flies in the sky . . .
I want to be the person who’s flying high with a leather jacket and goggles on the side .
The person named Tiffany.
— Tiffany Adams, a junior at Ballou High School
Fourteen local high schoolers’ voices came to a crescendo, their words tinged with pride and passion, as they competed in a poetry slam Monday at Reagan National Airport, judged in part by renowned poet Nikki Giovanni.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority hosted the slam to commemorate Black History Month and invited students from Potomac, Parkdale, Loudoun County, West Potomac and Ballou high schools to participate.
In the first round, they spoke of the first blacks in the air and the freedom found up there.
The audience listens, entranced
By the cadences and the choruses
By the voices and the vibrations
By the past and the present
As teenage voices rise with the wings of a plane
And coast above the clouds.
“The skies themselves don’t discriminate,” said Saffie Koroma, a junior at Parkdale High School.
They spoke of overcoming obstacles and forging new paths.
“You may saw my legs off, but I’ll still rise,” said Jonathan Bethea, a sophomore at Ballou. “I will fly high in the sky.”
And, like Tiffany, they spoke of idols such as Bessie Coleman and their attempts to emulate them.
Then, in the second round, they spoke about themselves.
Freshman Carolyn Felton dredges up her demons.
Her memories of bullies
And a fifth-grader’s thoughts of suicide.
But today she says she’s won.
The now-ninth grader cleaned up and stopped cutting
She writes so she can put her thoughts down on paper
And banish them to yesterday.
I can still remember those long bus rides home,
After getting bullied at school all day.
They used to say, ‘Hey, ugly girl at the front,’ and I knew they was talking about me.
But I was too ashamed of myself to turn around and defend God’s creation, so I just sank down in my seat.
I didn’t want them to see that the tears, they trickled down my cheek.
— Carolyn Felton, a freshman at Parkdale High School
But West Potomac High School junior Bernice Kear is angry. Defiant.
Her scars run deep, piercing skin and soul.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
That is the biggest lie that I have ever heard.”
She fights back, challenging her evils head-on.
You see, I have learned this the hard way,
I have fought World War III inside of me because of what others have had to say.
So if you want to come and hurt me,
Pick up some sticks and stones.
And break my bones.
Because your words do more than hurt me.
“All I could think was, ‘There’s really good hope for the future,’ ” said Amy Young, a judge and Alexandria’s poet laureate. “They were able to bring in their own creativity.”
Young, Giovanni and Airports Authority employee and author Vincent Young judged the students on their delivery, content and originality. Carolyn, the youngest poet, took first place and $150. West Potomac junior Nick Hyman came in second with $100, and Bernice was third with $75. Consolation prizes of books and $20 were awarded to Tiffany and Derien Davis, a junior at Loudoun County High School.
Giovanni praised the students’ talent and courage, telling them to pursue poetry in college.
Her poetry classes at Virginia Tech often include workshops and lessons on how to listen properly.
“If you listen well, you will write well,” she said.