It’s still hard for McKenzie Turner to talk about that day.
She was walking home from middle school three years ago with her best friend, who couldn’t wait to tell his dad that he’d aced a math test. He bolted away from McKenzie so he could share the news.
“But when he walked into his house, he found his dad was shot. He was bleeding out,” said McKenzie, now 15 and a sophomore at Richard Wright Public Charter School in Southeast Washington. “His dad died.”
“I know the scars of gun violence,” said McKenzie, dressed in a sharp suit and a bow tie, to an audience of about 300. “They cut deep.”
She was participating in a speech contest in a fancy downtown building in a booming city.
It looked like the usual kid event, the kind that happen all over the region, where students cite sources, fidget in their good clothes, grimace at all the pictures mom is taking.
But in the nation’s capital, there was more going on than the introduction-thesis-body-conclusion structure.
Kids who entered the contest focused on their delivery and diction, their posture and prose. They extemporized about immigration, opioid addiction, prison reform, domestic violence, universal health care, mental illness and gun violence. And nearly all of them had a powerful personal connection to their topics.
These weren’t just stories. They were their stories.
McKenzie spoke about gun violence not just because she does active-shooter drills at Richard Wright or because she hears about school shootings across the country.
She spoke about gun violence because this is her life. “I didn’t really want to talk about it at first,” McKenzie told me after she gave her speech. “But I knew it was time for me to go there.”
“Every day, I worry about my safety,” she said. And every day, she thinks about her friend losing his dad.
All of the kids in this contest were from the District, and all of them took part in One World Education, an after-school program that helps students sharpen their writing skills.
“Overall, only a third of D.C. students are college-ready writers,” said Dave McGloin, director of research and strategy for the organization. “And in our 140 character, test-driven world, writing keeps slipping further and further down the priority list.”
The students were great; they did their part of the learning.
“This is the one night a year when we see weeks of students’ work come together in polished presentations,” said Eric Goldstein, founder and chief executive of One World. “All of a sudden, all the effort that went into researching and writing an essay, and later transforming it into an oral presentation, is worth it.”
Phu Dahn was too scared to give his speech in front of 30 friends two weeks ago. But when the 17-year-old talked about access to higher education to the crowd of 300, he nailed it.
The American Dream for immigrants, in his mind, is dying.
“Most college doors for low-income students like me remain half open,” he said.
Phu, a senior at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Northwest Washington, came to America from Vietnam in 2004. And he knows that, like so many of his peers, he’s going to have to work to support himself while going to George Mason University, and he’s probably going to graduate with crippling debts.
“I know that education is the great equalizer,” Phu told me after his speech, “but I really don’t think it’s there for all the low-income kids like me anymore.”
These kids are painfully aware of where they stand on this country’s priority list.
Nyla Thomas, a seventh-grader at Capital City Public Charter School, was appalled when her cousin in preschool was suspended for more than a week for misbehavior. So she researched suspension rates, which confirmed what she thought was happening.
“Suspensions are biased against minorities in America,” she said. After her presentation, she told me that it feels like too many teachers make quick judgments before getting to really know kids. “That’s what it looked like when it happened to my little cousin.”
Amora Campbell, a sophomore at Richard Wright, won first place in the contest. Her oratory about health care was clear, passionate and personal.
“I live in a low-income neighborhood,” Amora said. “And I see people who can’t afford medications.”
There was a teen whose speech on mental health in the black community was underscored by her own depression diagnosis and how difficult it was for her to get care.
There was a ninth-grader who spoke about how her mom ended up in jail after being beaten up by her father.
There was a sixth-grader who wants to be a doctor but worries that her journey will be much harder because she is female.
And there was a sophomore who sees how hard it is for the folks in her neighborhood who come home from prison to reenter society.
Most of the kids I talked to said it feels like adults aren’t trying to help them or do much for their futures.
This contest was aimed at helping kids work on their writing and public speaking, and they did their jobs on that front.
But it was the kids doing the teaching, too.
And their stories were a compelling reminder to the country’s divided, bickering adults that it’s time we do our jobs, too.