I remember the cool darkness as I stood backstage. My fingers were tingling, my stomach was churning, I was both excited and nervous—the classic symptoms of stage-fright that I was experiencing more and more that year. Mrs. Wozniak, my fourth-grade teacher, had nearly forgotten about the event in the auditorium that day. With just minutes to spare, she quickly shuttled the entire class to the large, darkened hall and ushered me backstage. I had just a few minutes to prepare myself for my poetry reading. But I wasn’t angry at Mrs. Wozniak, I had had enough time to prepare, I already knew my poem by heart.
It was our elementary school’s annual Poetry Contest, a competition not only memorization, but on speech and delivery. Candidates had been pre-selected from each class to recite works from classic literature or from well-known contemporary poets. Where I stood backstage, I could peek at the audience through a gap in the curtain. Kids and teachers were waiting impatiently for the next contestant to enter the stage, they had bored expressions on their faces. They couldn’t see me watching them in the cool darkness.
I felt like I was in outer space, floating among stars and planets. The small stage lights were pale yellow orbs, shining down from the ceiling and lining the edges of the stage. I waited in the dark like something out of the ether—translucent, unformed and malleable—eagerly, anxiously wanting to materialize. My fingers were ice-cold. As I waited for my name to be announced, my teeth began to chatter.
“Don’t be nervous,” said a confident voice. Surprised, I quickly turned to the source. It was an older boy sitting nonchalantly on a chair against a wall just a few steps away. He sat with one leg folded across his lap, the way that grown men do. Though he probably wasn’t much older than ten years old, he had the bearing of someone much older and wiser. His light-brown hair was buzz-cut, he had a slightly chubby, cheerful face with intelligent eyes and an easy smile. I did not notice him before in the dark. He seemed both self-assured and friendly, there was kindness in his voice.
With no hesitation, I walked towards him and nodded. “I try not to, but I always get nervous, I can’t control it,” I confessed, as if he was a wise, old monk. This poetry contest was my third competition that year, having competed in two spelling bees prior. No doubt, the boy had seen me compete before. That meant he also saw me fail. Fail miserably. Although I could prove that I was a good representative for my class, when onstage I always froze and panicked, forgetting everything I had learned and getting eliminated on just my first and my third words: button (to this day I can’t look at that word without cringing) and apparatus, respectively.
“Just imagine that everyone’s naked,” he said with smile, “that’s what I do. It always works for me.” I chuckled, at the time I had never heard of that idea before. It seemed fresh and rebellious. I sat down on the empty chair next to him and peered at the crowd from the side of the curtain. “Imagine those people are not wearing any pants,” he said, casually stretching his knuckles by weaving the fingers of both hands together. I smiled as I imagined the unsuspecting crowd wearing only their underpants: days-of-the-week and Looney Tunes underwear. The boy smiled too. With his fingers still joined, he rested his hands behind his head and sat back in the pose of a relaxed beach-lounger. He’s a real show-off, I thought, taunting me with his laid-back confidence. Yet, I liked him immediately, I yearned to have his bravado and coolness.
Suddenly my name was announced. I stood up quickly and walked to the open stage. “Good luck! Break a leg!” said the boy. I took my place in the middle of the stage, under the spotlight. The crowd was getting a bit unruly. One of the judges, a teacher from a senior class, announced my name and sternly demanded silence from the audience. They acquiesced. I took a deep breath and began, loudly and clearly:
T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads; (Moore)
We all know that popular poem by Clement C. Moore. But I didn’t just recite it, I played it, I was gesturing and mimicking the entire time. A quiet house: my finger to my lips. Sleeping people: my eyes closed and hands folded at my cheek. A mouse: my hands at my nose scratching. It was a one-man dance, one that none of the other competitors had done before. I remembered every word of the more than 50-line poem, every line had its own gesture and I did them all, I didn’t miss a beat. My mother had come-up with all my moves and I had practiced them hundreds of times at home. However, I felt it wasn’t my best work, my nerves kept creeping up on me, threatening to scatter my memory. I performed everything correctly, but I was too mechanical, a puppet on strings. And intuitively, I felt I did not reach the audience, I knew I could have done better, it was as if I no longer believed in the words I was saying.
The audience had remained silent during my performance, but after I finished the poem, there came a thunderous mixture of applause and laughter. Peals of laughter! Especially from the older kids, who apparently, had been sitting holding their hands over their mouths the entire time. Now laughter erupted from them like hot lava from a volcano and they were quaking and doubling-over with relentless aftershocks. I blushed bright red and wanted to run. They thought my performance was babyish, the realization hit me hard.
Suddenly, the head judge angrily stood up and made a short but powerful speech. She scolded the unruly kids, commanding them to “respect everyone and treat them with kindness. It’s not easy to perform in front of an audience.” Then she added, “This performance is, in our opinion, the best one of the event and is currently on top of the whole competition.” I didn’t know what to make of it. I felt an odd mixture of shame, shock and pride. She thanked me heartily and I left the stage. In silence, I went back to my seat next to the boy. I wondered if the judges felt sorry for me. The boy smiled at me, “You did great!” he said, which made me feel a little better. Then he coolly got up to take his turn on the stage. His was the last performance of the day.
By the time he reached the spotlight, the crowd was dead silent. He seemed larger-than-life, his pose was strong, his face serious and his voice emerged like a bold fighter, confident and brash:
It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr,
To bear him company.
Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.
The skipper he stood beside the helm,
His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
The smoke now West, now South.
Then up and spake an old Sailòr,
Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
“I pray thee, put into yonder port,
For I fear a hurricane. (Longfellow)
As he spoke, the jarring events that just preceded him seemed to dissolve into foam—sea foam on the crest of a wave. Even and especially for me. The world was now a moody sea of greys, greens and blues. The weather-worn sails flapped against violent gusts and threatened to tear, rigging stretched and groaned, pulled by forces stronger than all the sailors onboard. The boy was a stubborn sea captain, a spinner of yarns, a spry, bawdy sailor, a lover of adventure, an explorer of violence and beauty in its most raw and tender forms.
At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.
The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.
Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe! (Longfellow)
I knew before he ended the poem that he had won the contest.
His was not a sweet, nice poem to tuck babies into their beds with. There was no safe conclusion; there was no peace or security; there were no cute gestures. Yet it was what everyone hungered for—the thrill of life in all its glory, the cruel blindness of stupid commanders, the vulnerability of innocence. Intense passion in all its folly.
The applause and standing ovation that came after his performance was pure and deafening.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker, © 2017
Note: The winning poem and excerpts included here is from The Wreck of the Hesperus by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1842. The poem I performed was A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore.