The winners of the Poetry for Peace contest waited in line for their solos on the Regina A. Quick Center stage. Some took hesitant steps to the microphone stand when their names were called, dragging their gleaming red Mary Janes and black dress shoes across the wooden stage. Others approached the spotlight with some pep in their step, smiling and making faces to their family members out in the audience.
Though different in their heights and confidence, these children gathered in the Quick Center on Friday, Jan. 25, for one purpose: to share through poetry their ideas of peace.
Started in 2008, the Poetry for Peace contest allows students in grades kindergarten through eight from the Bridgeport and Fairfield Public Schools the chance to define peace through creative writing. The reading event used to be held in the Kelley Center, but because of growing popularity, the event had to be relocated to the Quick Center.
According to co-director of Poetry for Peace Dr. Jerelyn M. Johnson, associate professor of modern languages and literature, the judging panel received over 1,000 entries. They then split entries by grades, organizing them into four grade flights. From there on, a panel of Fairfield faculty and undergraduate and graduate students chose the winners, honorable mentions and the judges’ favorites.
The winning poems were published in a booklet, which was also distributed to the audience consisting of the Fairfield University community, parents and children.
Applause punctuated each pause before another poet went to the stage to read. Mothers juggled their children on their laps. Kids smiled to the camera as their parents beckoned from below in their seats. Confidence seemed to grow as the height of the poets increased.
The older children naturally took in the world events which disrupt peace, while most of the younger children compared peace to their own everyday activities.
Certain students shared a humorous perception of peace. In his poem “What peace is to me,” Christopher Cirelli, a Fairfield Woods Middle School sixth grader, wrote: “Peace is not getting haircuts.”
There were also poems that gave surprising insight into how aware children are of the present world.
Fifth grader Alec Nardone from Burr Elementary School wrote that in a world without peace, humanity is on the brink of self-destruction: “We’re all on fire – and we don’t even know it / Soon our humanity will be gone, / Burnt.”
Grace Hilton, a third grader from Timothy Dwight Elementary School in Fairfield, brought up origami cranes, the symbol of peace sprung up after the 9/11 attacks, in her poem. She saw peace in the olive branch that Noah had spotted when he arrived on land in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Nardone and Hilton’s poems showed that, like many of the writings in the booklet, what children know should not be taken for granted.
Not only did the poems serve to entertain and to enlighten, but they also brought into perspective the contrast between the poems and reality’s fragile events that threaten current peace.
Johnson recounted the time when she and the judges met to consider the final entries. Three days later, the Sandy Hook shooting spree occurred, during which 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed, most of them children.
Johnson said to the poets in the audience: “I know I speak for many of us when I say that during that seriously sad and dark moment, your words, and knowing that you and your poems existed, gave us hope. Such is the power of poetry.”
Mariam Anwar, a second grader at Osborn Hill Elementary School, wrote a poem entitled “Peace” and won an honorable mention in the grade K-2 flight.
Her opening line states that “peace sounds like the dolphins jumping in the waves.”
Encouraged by her teacher to think about things she liked when describing peace, Anwar said, “I thought about the beach and that’s how I came up with the dolphins. And I like mangoes,” she added, which referred to her line, “Peace tastes like a mango from a tree.”
She said reciting her poem to an audience was “easy” because “I wasn’t looking at the people.”
In his closing remarks, Poetry for Peace co-director and associate English professor Dr. Peter Bayers said, “We would like to thank all of you, the poets who are here, for sharing your voices with us. I think we would all agree that we have learned from your insights, your beauty and your wisdom. Your poetry attests to the power and possibilities of language.
“Your poetry has changed all of us for the better tonight. And for that: thank you.”
Brenda Perry and Wendy Accomando, teachers at Osborn Hill Elementary School, have been involved with Poetry for Peace from the start and always encourage their students to submit to the contest.
Perry, a fourth grade teacher, described this event as “wonderful,” while second grade teacher Accomando said Friday night’s poetry reading was “inspiring.”
“It’s inspiring for us,” said Accomando. “Poetry is a great medium; [the students] can use words, they don’t have to worry about grammar … they are creative and they’re open to writing things.”
Associate professor of philosophy Dr. Kris Sealey, who coordinated the judging process, would agree with Accomando, believing that poetry is sometimes overlooked in education. “…A lot of time, modes of expression are squashed and lost in formal education,” she said. “We struggle as professors to bring it back – hold on to it and make it grow!”
Sealey also sees the benefits participants would gain from the writing process. She said, “In order for these children to be productive in life, they have to develop their own voice.”
Carol Ann Davis, published poet and assistant professor of English, is working on an “expansion” of Poetry for Peace. The program, called “Poet in the classroom,” seeks to combine the poetry teaching efforts of poets and interested school teachers.
This year, the Poetry for Peace Contest was sponsored by Fairfield University’s Office of Academic Engagement, the Department of English and the Program in Peace and Justice. Poetry for Peace was also a part of the MLK Holiday Observance Week.
Reporting on this event was contributed by Crystal Rodriguez.