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Poetic Warriors: STL Seventh Graders Changing The World With Words

Kalise Harris
Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern

A South City Prep student who wrote about her best friend’s death set a high bar in the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation contest, created by St. Louis attorney Aaron Williams. But this year’s school winner seems ready to carry the mantle.

On Wednesday, 83 seventh-graders will perform an exercise in courage: reading their original poems at the Missouri History Museum in front of an audience. It’s the final event of the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation, called “Poetry on Their Own Terms.”

South City Preparatory Academy eighth-grader Kalise Harris knows how they feel. Representing her school last year, Harris laid it all on the line. As you can see in this YouTube video, her poem paid tribute to her fifth-grade best friend, who committed suicide after kids made fun of her for living in a foster home.

A year later, while talking with St. Louis Public Radio, Harris reflected on her emotional delivery.

“I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t cry don’t cry,’ but when I finally let the tears out it actually made me feel so much better,” Harris said. “I used to hold in emotions but writing can let everything out.”

Harris is only beginning to understand that she’s not responsible for what happened to her friend.

“I felt like it was all my fault that it happened. I felt like I didn’t help her enough that I didn’t listen to her,” Harris said. “Sometimes I still look back and think I could have helped more.”

Blood and Bullying

Attorney recruiter Aaron Williams created the foundation, also called 7GP, to give middle-schoolers in the St. Louis area and across the country the opportunity read their poems aloud, be published in an anthology and receive cash prizes of $25. But at its heart, the effort is about the value of self-expression.

Putting pen to paper is also how 13-year-old Jordan Morris, this year’s South City Prep winner, sorts through the ups and downs of being a teenager.

“I write down things in poems about my feelings about somebody such as … a boy.” Morris said.

Jordan Morris
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern
Jordan Morris

Morris’ winning poem “The Golden Vein,” which she’ll read Wednesday, gushes with raw emotion in lines like, “Blood is rich and thicker than water ... It’s like trickling acid burning thru my veins.” 

Morris explained that the feelings are hers but the person in the poem may or may not actually be her. She describes the protagonist in the third person.

“The more emotion she shows, the thicker her blood gets,” Morris said. “Emotions just make you stronger.”

South City Prep communication arts teacher Michelle Oyolo said students writing out their feelings may very well help to cut down on bullying.

Michelle Oyola
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern
Michelle Oyola

“They’re able to have conversations about that and to think deeply about what makes all of us the same,” Oyola said. “I would like to think poetry has a part in helping our students come together and see each other as people.”

Giving Voice to the Lonely Letter ‘Q’

Not every young poet is as emotionally driven as those at South City Prep. Some write about sports, an annoying sibling or the arrival of spring. In her winning poem last year, 14-year-old Olivia DuCharme of St. Catherine Laboure used a humorous approach to a serious topic: feeling left out.

DuCharme had recently gotten ahold of a vintage typewriter, and noticed the letter “Q” was set apart from the others. So when her teacher asked her to compose a poem using the concept of personification, she imagined how “Q” must feel, which led her to write “The Lonely Life of a Letter.”

DuCharme tends to be talkative and confident, but she’s aware of others who may be more like the letter “Q.”

“I just kind of sympathize with people who feel that way,” DuCharme said.

But the end of her poem – which has “Q” realizing who it’s meant to be – is something she understands first-hand.

“It’s kind of about self-acceptance, accepting who you are and embracing it,” she said.

Now, DuCharme is embracing a new vision of the future for herself.

“The contest has helped me to write more,” she said. “I would like to grow up and write a novel someday.”

Aaron Williams wants to further expand his 7th Grade Poetry Foundation using money from selling an art collection with an unusual theme: croquet. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how Williams amassed more than 1,200 pieces of art and other items around this historic pastime.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.