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Middle Schoolers Pour Out Their Hearts On Paper

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Higher Achievement staff and scholars are gearing up for this year’s Literary Love Poems competition. (L to R: staff member Beth Thompson, staff member Jenell Akoula, scholars Natalia G. and Brelyn R., Executive Director Lynsey Wood Jeffries)
Rebecca Sheir
Higher Achievement staff and scholars are gearing up for this year’s Literary Love Poems competition. (L to R: staff member Beth Thompson, staff member Jenell Akoula, scholars Natalia G. and Brelyn R., Executive Director Lynsey Wood Jeffries)

This Valentine’s Day, students in Washington, D.C., are competing for a chance to perform at the Kennedy Center, by reciting their own poems, all about love.

It’s called the Literary Love Poetry Performance, and the February 29 event is the brainchild of Higher Achievement, an after-school and summer academic program for middle-school students in at-risk communities.

“Higher Achievement knows that talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t, and we seek to close that gap,” says Lynsey Wood Jeffries, executive director of Higher Achievement, D.C. Metro. “We work toward a future where every young person’s promise and potential is realized, regardless of their circumstances.”

Jeffries says on average, 95 percent of Higher Achievement students, or “scholars,” as they’re called, advance to top academic high schools, and 93 percent go on to college.

Eighth grader Natalia says she’s definitely seen a difference with Higher Achievement.

“When I started in fifth grade, my grades were very poor,” she says. “And I’ve been on honor roll for two years in a row now, and I think that Higher Achievement has made the biggest impact on my life.”

Natalia and her fellow after-school scholars have spent months preparing for the Literary Love Poetry Performance by learning the ins and outs of poetry, from literary devices to language to form. The poem she’ll be competing with is called “Self Worth.” “Love who you are,” it reads. “Respect your individuality and what you claim is sanity. It’ll be all you have outside of home. Self-worth: believe in yourself as much as I do and these people you surround yourself with. My hopes and dreams are slowly becoming true, because of these same grown-ups around you. So those grown-ups, applaud them. They’ve motivated me, so I have my self-worth.”

And speaking of self-worth, seventh grader Brelyn says Higher Achievement has helped her find her own.

“Before I went here I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself and what I could do,” she says. “But now I have a lot of confidence, and I’m not scared to go and tell you who I am.”

She isn’t scared to go and perform her own poetry, either. The piece she’s written is called “Love and Hate,” which ends with the lines: “These two little words that you carelessly say, but you often regret who you say it to. These four-letter words that you don’t think mean much, but they really mean much more than you could ever think. Love, hate.”

A panel of judges will select twelve of this Tuesday’s competitors to perform at the Kennedy Center at month’s end. Judges evaluate students on three things: performance, use of literary devices and what Jeffries calls “unique perspective,” or “the creativity [scholars] bring to the poem.”

This month’s event will be Higher Achievement’s seventh Literary Love Poetry Performance. Jeffries says it’s always made a lasting impression on participants.

“It’s something they write about in their applications for top high schools. It’s something that they’re proud of for the rest of their lives,” she says. “I’m thinking of one scholar in particular who’s now a freshman in college and poetry was what broke open her confidence, and helped her become the woman that she is today.”

And that, says Jeffries, is truly important because these scholars are the leaders, and maybe even great poets, of tomorrow.


[Music: "L-O-V-E" by Nat King Cole from The Very Best of Nat King Cole]

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