(I added a thought and query at the end of this post on Monday, 12/18)
It was the finals. Some of the girls were as young as 13, and barely 5' tall. As start time approached, they sat with their heads bowed low and knees shaking, awaiting the lights to dim.
Of the 12 teenage girls who would perform for an audience and for five judges, five would join
girlstory's team and perform/compete in Washington DC this summer at the beloved national poetry slam. As I took in this scene, I became baffled at the idea of people publicly judging the highly sensitive work of these young vulnerable girls.
And then: Each young girl took the mic, and like holograms, transformed into large, wizened mothers defying age, race, and nationality.
It was the first poetry slam I had been to in years. I hadn't expected to be let in to such private spaces; to feel so much power and pain; to be brought to tears... three times. The girls had written poetic, mostly autobiographical monologues and then applied theatrical techniques to their poetry. The result was mesmerizing.
In the end, several of the performers were clearly more mature and studied than others; and some had clearly chosen better poems to perform. I agreed fully with the judges' choices.
But, as the announcement of the winners was made, seven girls stood defeated on stage--the youngest one completely sullen. She had once again become the small nervous young girl I had seen before the show. Is the judging part really necessary? I thought to myself again.
So, after the event, I decided to talk to a competitive kid about it: my 14-year-old cousin. She is a ballroom dancer, and I have watched her ride similar emotional roller coasters at her competitions. She had invited us to this poetry slam, since her friend was one of the performers:
"Sam, why do events like this one--and like ballroom dancing--need a competitive element?.. I mean, you love dancing and you have so much pride. Wouldn't you work as hard at dancing for just a performance?"
"I don't know, it just wouldn't be as interesting.
"Interesting... It wouldn't be as exciting."
"So you really do not think you would work as hard?"
"What about how bad you feel when you don't do well?"
"When you lose, you can sulk around for a little while, but then you just know that you have to work that much harder. And when you win, Becca, it's a better feeling than any performance can ever give you."
As a kid, I didn't thrive under the spotlight, nor under public scrutiny. But it seems that some kids do. I would love, in particular, to hear from young--or older--poetry slam performers on this topic.