It’s 2:46 pm. Several students are still in the hallway at Aiken High School. Some students are making their way to band practice. Some are waiting to be picked up. The final overhead announcement signals that school is over for the day and students should be heading to their after-school activities or heading home.
Lockers slam shut. Sneakers squeak across the floor. The hallway empties. All that’s left are the posters adorning the hallway and the occasional yellow pencil, forgotten on the floor.
Still, in room 1138, a lot is happening. Students are talking about their day with teachers and coaches and friends as the WordUp team settles in for their last meeting before the semi-finals on Saturday.
With less than 42 hours until show time, you might expect a group of high school students to be nervous. Well, if these kids were nervous, you couldn’t tell by looking at them. There is excitement in the air.
“You want to talk about some poetry stuff?” Elese Daniel asks the group as things start to settle down. “Let’s do this.”
Some of the students have their piece memorized and ready to perform while some are still working which has made some of the tutors nervous.
Kate Spencer sits with Tayshona Holliday who has been working on an emotionally charged piece about her break-up. As she wipes away her tears and struggles to get through her newest piece, it’s clear the emotions are still very raw for her.
Getting up from the table, she says, “I just need a minute” and she takes a walk down the hallway.
While Tayshona is taking a break, Daniel comes over and sits down with Spencer where they speak quietly about the poem.
“It’s so close to her right now,” Spencer said, “She’s going to break down when she tries to do it.”
When Tayshona comes back, Spencer shows her the piece she has started a few weeks before that Daniel found in her bag.
“This is where you need to start,” Spencer said. “This is something fresh and really specific and this is something that nobody else has said.
Tayshona thinks about it for a moment and after her friend and fellow poet, Da’sia Clendenning agreed this other piece is stronger, she agrees to work on the older piece to polish for the semi-finals.
“The frustration is that if [the students] don’t have something on paper to show me, I can’t help them,” Spencer said later as she tapped on top a crumpled piece of notebook paper. “I’ve just been at such loose ends feeling like I’m not accomplishing anything for them and that makes me crazy.”
Others are also working one-on-one to polish their pieces in time for the semi-finals.
Tyrese Adams steps into the hallway with a tutor and performs her piece completely from memory.
Lacy Robison works with tutor Zohair Hussain with his words shining of the white board.
Hussain tells him, “No performance should ever be the same…because you’re always getting better. You’re always getting more practice on the poem…more in tune with your emotions.”
At 5:03, the students began packing up their bags and jackets and started heading home. WordUp is over for another day and the kids have notes for what to work on before Saturday.
As the room clears and the noise begins to die down, tutor Sam Foulkes said when asked if the kids are ready, “I feel like they are at 90% and the last 10% is on them.”
“I’m nervous that one of them is going to suddenly wilt under the lights, you know,” Foulkes said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, but that’s always a risk. As long as they know that if they mess something up they can just keep going. That’s the only thing.”
Hussian added, “My only nerves are about this having a negative impact if this doesn’t turn out the way they expect. I mean, I think this [competition] comes secondary to them writing. It’s just a fun byproduct of them having the opportunity to do something they love the same way an athlete would. That’s fun for them and I think it’s great they get to do that, but I would be frustrated if a negative result discouraged them from ever doing this again. So as long as that doesn’t happen, I’ll be fine.”
The semi-finals are Saturday from 9:30 am until 5 pm at the University of Cincinnati DAAP theater and I suppose time will tell if the kids are ready.