It seemed like a usual day in Matthew Valencich’s fourth period English 4 class when, as they were preparing for a poetry recitation assignment at the end of the semester, almost out of nowhere, a group of freshmen began to perform a rap to the seniors.
“Just got here this fall/in senior hall we be knockin’ down walls, Slow down the pace/ seniors can’t keep just like in a race. We’re the wise owls/and you’re the dumb duck you cowardly chickens.”
The freshmen were challenging the seniors to an epic battle of recitation: the annual Poetry Out Loud competition. Freshman Breanna White led the rap.
“I was picked mainly because I wasn’t afraid or shy when confronting the seniors,” she said. “I helped write the rap.”
Freshman English teacher Adam Bearson said that the freshmen needed to avenge the pain and teenage angst they’ve experienced at the hands of the upperclassmen.
“Our freshmen are positioned better to win the contest than the seniors because the freshmen have a lot of burdens put on them by being underclassmen. They’re going to turn those burdens into triumph. The truth is thatpoetry really is an art form for younger people,” Bearson said.
“The freshmen were inspired to write a rap that delivered a strong message to the seniors in verse that they would cower in fear at the force of the freshmen rhyme.”
English teacher Matthew Valencich accepted the challenge with zeal.
“The juniors and seniors gladly accept the challenge and will trump the underclassmen in the poetic field,” Valencich said.
More than a dozen classes are participating in Poetry Out Loud, a poetry recitation contest created by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Poetry Out Loud is a program of poetic recitation,” Valencich said.
“We put it on so we can have the chance to compete in the county, state, and national competitions and to do something involving oral interpretation because we’re always reading and writing. This lets us address speaking.”
Poetry Out Loud was the perfect opportunity to pit the seniors, the juniors, the sophomores, and the freshmen against one another.
All four grades have classes competing. The seniors weren’t going to let the freshman intimidate them without striking back. They composed a rap that, point by point, rebutted the freshmen.
“Call me the dog catcher/ because I just put you down. When we walk through the walls remember to cower in fear/ because we’ll be in college this time next year. Us seniors have the athletes, cute girls, and glory/ you still have your parents reading bedtime stories.”
The seniors feel confident that they will ultimately prevail in this Earth shaking battle.
“I thought it was very courageous of them to attempt to beat us in a poetry slam,” senior James Villanueva said.
“It was cute to see them try but despite their efforts, the seniors will obviously win because we have more experience and we have Mahoney. There is no doubt in my mind that we will be victorious.”
“I thought their attempts were feeble,” senior Josh Kleeman said. “Their powers of lyrical rhetoric were embarrassing.”
“I think we have a strong chance of beating them,” freshman Breanna White said.
“They should feel picked on by us.”
The winner in each class faces the winners in all the other classes. The school winner faces school winners from throughout the county.
The county faces county winners from throughout the state. Finally, the state winner faces state winners from throughout the country at the national competition in Washington, D.C.
The farthest a Rio student has gone is the county tournaments.
For AP senior English teacher Michael Mahoney, Poetry Out Loud is about the value of memorizing poetry more than the competition.
“A few years ago, I read a novel by Ian McEwan that included a scene in which a young woman saves her family from a deranged thug by reciting Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach,’” Mahoney said.
“I think that pretty well shows the importance of memorizing poetry. Of course, she was also naked at the time so that might have had something to do with distracting the guy. Also it was fiction, so maybe it’s not the best example.”
Even if you can’t stop a crime with a poem, Mahoney supports memorization.
“If you want to understand a poem, you have to carry it around in your head for a while. Memorizing a poem means you get to carry that poem around in your head with you,” he said. “You’ll always have it, no matter what technology breaks down.”