Each student took the stage in front of hundreds of their peers at Hill Central High School. And one by one, they revealed their passions, their fears, their hopes and insecurities. And one by one, their words were met with thunderous applause.
Trinity Pearsall, Elijah Ratcliffe and Jacob Williams were the top three performers at the sixth annual Hill Central poetry slam. Jacob, who's 13, took home first place.
"I'm so excited. I'm so stoked," he told WNPR. "I was not expecting to become first place. I thought it was going to be like a tie with someone. My heart was beating so fast, like when they did that drum roll, I was like, 'Oh my God, you're just making it more intense on me!'"
He started his poem by talking about the death of his grandmother, and all the struggles that we all deal with when someone close to us dies.
Jacob's repetition of the word "light" recalled a mix of imagery related to God, hope, and rejuvenation.
"The poem about me was just a poem I needed to get out of myself," he said. "So like, it's all trapped inside of me. So I thought: If I put it down on lines, I can get it all out of me. And when I spoke it, I felt like someone different. I felt like I knew my problems, and I expressed them to get some of them off my chest."
That connection to emotion can be validating, especially for middle school kids.
It's one of many reasons that this poetry slam was created, said literacy coach and former teacher Donna DelBasso, who came up with the idea six years ago.
"They all have this similar pain, or these similar deep experiences," DelBasso said. "And when they have that, and they're able to write about it, and then be able to express it -- it all comes full circle for me. It's like there's not one kid that doesn't get up there that doesn't nearly bring me to tears, because I know that it's something that's going to stay with them for the rest of their lives. It's pretty powerful."
The themes ranged from missing parents, to bullying, to racism, and social justice. The only common theme was that each poem sounded personal.
DelBasso said the students had to audition to participate, and they practiced every day during lunch for three weeks before the performance, working on things like articulation, pacing, and flow.
"At practice, there's always a couple of kids I'm a little bit concerned -- are they gonna be able to do it, are they not going to be able to it?" she said. "But there's something about getting out here on this stage -- it's amazing. They get out here and they are about like a million times better than they ever were at any practice."
And unlike most competitions, they all seemed to support each other. After each poem, many of the competitors would chant for their peer.
In fact, the entire school seemed supportive. One student froze on stage, and kept freezing up, but there weren't any snickers or harsh comments from the crowd. Instead, it was cheers and applause, and words of encouragement.
After the awards were handed out, the performers were back to being kids, and there's no bragging or finger pointing. Everyone seemed genuinely happy.
DelBasso said watching them develop confidence and camaraderie makes it worth all worth it.
"I always tell everybody, now I can die in peace, because this has turned into more than I ever dreamed of," she said.