A few weeks ago I served as a judge for Poetry Out Loud (I've been waiting to secure permission to publish a couple photos of the finalists before posting this blog, but it's not yet forthcoming; so, onward). This is a competition wherein high school students memorize and recite published poems of their choosing. The contest starts at the school level and then moves through regional and state tournaments, ending with a national competition in Washington, D.C.; I was a judge for the Chicago regionals, held in the calming and airy headquarters of the Poetry Foundation.
Specifically, I was the "accuracy judge." While the other three judges evaluated students on style, clarity, and other such subjective elements, I was to follow the text of the poem during each student's recitation and measure fidelity to the written form. Even pluralizing a word or saying "the" instead of "a" meant a loss in point value.
While I would have enjoyed watching the students' full presentation, which I couldn't do with the Weight of Accuracy in my hands, I was grateful my criteria for judging these hopeful, earnest kids were entirely objective. As soon as we started, though, I realized I couldn't hide behind the black-and-white of the text: out of the four of us, I looked like the Mean One. Nervously standing not more than five feet in front of me, the contestant would say "of" instead of "for" and I would act immediately, marking the error on the poem. There is no way the students couldn't see me do it. While the other judges took notes during the presentation, their moves were not tied so directly to a particular word or phrase, and they could have been writing something positive, of course. If my hand moved, it meant nothing but bad news. I effected my kindest and most benign expression as each student recited, but I they weren't fooled, and I had a job to do.
In the end, the students I would have picked as the third, second, and first place winners indeed came in third, second, and first, so all was right with the world. I was relieved that no one's lack of orientation to detail, betrayed by my scoring sheet, had destroyed their chance at national poetic fame.
It was a joy to be around adolescents again. My days of classroom teaching are over, for a number of reasons, but I sure do miss teenagers. I love how newly and momentously they feel and experience things, how much their own growth in their minds and perceptions rock them, how they begin to catch glimpses of their adult selves, and you can see their comportment shift subtly accordingly. And it turns out all of those qualities are in evidence when they recite poetry.