Palmetto Youth Center was filled with nervous energy last night. Friends, family and 17 finalists came piling in just after sunset, juggling copies of speeches, cameras, cell phones and tape recorders. It was the best place to be in Manatee County right then.
I’ve been so lucky to be included each year as a judge in the Martin Luther King Jr. Essay and Speech Contest. This was the seventh annual contest, and it just gets better every year. We received 97 entries -- a record! And each year, the kids seem to write with more sincerity, more passion –- more understanding of each other and their life’s challenges.
The judges narrowed the 97 entries down to these 17 finalists -- a tough task. Each essayist wrote a usually very personal message -- and most offered solutions to racial inequities and challenges they live and see every day. And what an eye-opener to read the reality of what these young people –- all but five of them still in middle school -- already face in this troubled world.
So as the finalists got ready to present their speeches, the pressure was on. I think I was as nervous for them as they were -– that fear of public speaking is a well-known personality trait. As Patricia Johnson, the amazing chairwoman of this event every year, had the contestants draw a number for their turn, the boy behind me was bouncing in his seat.
“I really hope I’m first, I really hope I’m first,” he kept saying. His mom chuckled and hastened to tell me that he wasn’t even talking about winning the contest. Michael Shekari, a sixth-grader from Harllee Middle School, wanted to get up on that stage and get it over with.
He drew the very last number.
So by the time Michael hit the stage, we had listened to many powerful statements. Here’s a sampling:
“We need to collect the scattered energies that have been lost, the dreams. How? We must learn to forgive, communicate, and love.” – Dyrren Barber, 11th-grader at Manatee High.
“Someday when I become a leader, speaker or teacher in the world, I would not change the message … but try to find a way to … maintain our freedom of speech and equality, which is what Dr. King died for.” -- Marena Taylor, 8th-grader at Johnson Middle
“But just remember that no matter what your skin color is, we’re all in this together.” – Hannah Fossum, a classmate of Michael’s.
But Michael more than held his own. His essay and speech came from his life -– and he almost dared us not to care. His dad is Persian; his mom is white. When they made their first trip to Florida, they set out for a great adventure. Instead, they were attacked in Georgia by the KKK.
“And I am not talking about the Koolest Kids from Kentucky,” Michael quipped, then soberly added, “It means the Klu Klux Klan.”
He took us back to the '60s and segregated schools -- “How wrong is THAT?!” he demanded. And he didn’t waste time getting riled up about today: “The next thing I am going to say makes me plain mad. That is, that people are being slaughtered over color, race and religion.”
Michael certainly had one of my votes.
Herald reporter Beth Burger was there to capture the highlights and winners for today’s 1A story in the Herald. She told me later that she asked Dyrren Barber, the first-place winner for high-schoolers, whether he planned to be a politician or a preacher. He was that good.
The winners will present their speeches at the MLK Annual Banquet next Friday night in Palmetto. We will publish their essays on the editorial pages Jan. 20, and we’ll have them online next week.
One of the contestant’s moms came up to me afterward and threw her arms around me. “I just had to hug you,” she said. “Every year, you just cry you’re so happy!”
Well, I’m glad my tears won’t make headlines. But as I looked around the center at supportive parents, proud friends and beaming winners, I knew why I choked up. These kids are really our hope that Dr. King’s dream lives on.