by Andy Mitchell
Recently, I had the pleasure of taking part in the Jacksonville High School (JHS) Poetry Slam. I’ll be honest; slams are not really my thing. Poetry, yes; slams, no. But when Caleb Holaway asked me to participate as a guest reader and judge, how could I say no? And I’m sure glad I didn’t. Thanks to Holaway and to Tim Chipman, as well, I have now had the opportunity to read my poetry three times at the high school.
It’s funny, but the whole reason I started writing poetry in the first place, was to get out of reading it. I hadn’t ever thought of writing a poem until my senior year, when Tom Smith gave an assignment that came with a choice, one that may have seemed inconsequential to the rest of the class, but one that changed my life in a way few choices have. We had two options for this assignment: memorize and read a poem aloud in class, or … type out an original poem and hand it in. Well, I knew for certain that I wasn’t going to stand before my fellow students and read anything, let alone something so lofty as a poem. Therefore, I was left with only one option. I would have to make a poem up all by myself. (Because, while they might help their kids with math or geography, parents don’t write poetry.)
By no small miracle (and the mercy of Mr. Smith), I received an “A” for my effort. Heck, I would have settled for a “D,” which is surely what the first poem I ever wrote deserved. But whether it was the encouragement of the grade or the mere idea that here was something new I could do, I’ve been writing poetry ever since. A whole year passed before I wrote my second poem, the first one I wrote just for myself, with no prompt but the muse. I was walking through campus and the leaves were crunching beneath my steps. It filled me with an emotion I was compelled to express. But, how? How about poetry, I’d thought.
If it hadn’t been for Mr. Smith and his assignment, I doubt I ever would have considered doing what has since become paramount in my daily routine. And if it weren’t for Mr. Chipman, I might never have had the opportunity to share my poetry with high school students. Chipman hosted me in his classroom twice before assuming his current administrative role. As a lover of poetry, Chipman encouraged his students to read it (and perhaps, write it) through his earnest enthusiasm. On both of my visits to his classroom, I was inspired by Chipman’s method of teaching as well as by his students who thrived under his exceptional tutelage.
As much as I feel at home writing poems after all these years, I remain a reluctant reader of them. I am not a performer. So, this component of a slam puts me off. That said, I was moved by so many young people interested in writing their way through the high seas of high school. They are difficult years. Some of the participants at the JHS Poetry Slam were born performers. Hats off to them. But I must confess a soft spot for those who wrote out of a desire to express themselves on their own terms, in their lonely rooms at night, and still had the guts to stand before their peers and teachers and read what they alone had written.