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‘Hear Our Voices’

Students share heritage in annual speech contest

Photo by Jeylin White
Haynie Elementary School students, Rosa Menoff and Dreamia Sao, participated in the Clayton County Public Schools “Hear Our Voices” speech competition, held at the First Baptist Church, Jonesboro.

Photo by Jeylin White Haynie Elementary School students, Rosa Menoff and Dreamia Sao, participated in the Clayton County Public Schools “Hear Our Voices” speech competition, held at the First Baptist Church, Jonesboro.

Princess Rucker commanded the attention of audience members at the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, on Wednesday, as she stood before them in a white dress with gold trimmings, crystal barrettes in her hair, and an American flag in her right hand.

“I am just a 12-year-old girl, who is in a chocolate-covered shell,” she said. “You guessed it right, I’m African American.”

The M.D. Roberts Middle School sixth-grader was a contestant in the verbal portion of the 21st Annual Clayton County Public Schools “Hear Our Voices” competition.

Rucker’s dress –– she later said –– was designed to resemble that of an African Princess reincarnated, and also the way she liked to dress up for church on Sunday mornings.

Rucker told a panel of judges her heritage began in Africa. She then gave them a brief lesson in African-American history. “My ancestors were taken away from their homeland and forced to sail across the raging waters of the ocean of America to be slaves,” the youngster said. “I’m proud of my ancestors, who endured many hardships, but overcame through perseverance.”

On Wednesday, a group of 48 students, covering most grade levels, shared stories of their heritage and culture, during the event that is a Clayton County Public Schools language arts contest, in which students are challenged to put forward their best writing, and oratory skills, according to Ebony Thomas, the district’s coordinator of Language Arts and Media Services. The writing portion of the contest was held on Tuesday.

This year’s contestants came dressed in elaborate costumes –– with props in tow. Some took a more subtle approach, however, and made their presentations in their school uniforms.

Another M.D. Roberts pupil was seventh-grader, Olivia Bryant. She won last year’s competition, and made a bid for this year’s title with a speech entitled, “It’s not over,” which, she said, was inspired by the current state of the economy.

Bryant instructed the audience and judges to close their eyes and imagine they were a man pacing back and forth on the corner of the highway, with a cup in his right hand, and donated food in his left. Then, a man in a fancy car pulls up beside him, and says, “It’s not over,” but the poor man is still discouraged, and answers, “Yes, it’s over for me.”

Bryant said millions around the world share the same perspective as the poor man. “Well, I’m here to tell that life is not over,” she said. “Just believe in yourself, be creative, and determined.”

Her words of inspiration led to a standing ovation for her. “No one can stop you, but you,” said Bryant. “I hope you take these words of wisdom to heart.”

“This competition gives the students a voice, and builds confidence, and communication skills, and helps to develop public-speaking skills,” said Thomas. “It's a literary competition where students can enter their poems, short stories, essays, or give speeches,” she added.

Thomas said the theme for this year’s competition required students to stand before a panel of judges –– composed of educators –– and share their family’s cultural background and heritage. Judges for the speech portion of the competition included: English/ Language Arts facilitators, Caryn Turner and Deborah Green; Teacher development specialist, Maureen Mitchell; Implementation specialist, Joretha Lewis, and Early Intervention Program teacher, Sharon Henderson.

Contestants were judged on the content, originality, and the delivery of their speeches, as well eye contact, modulation, pacing, and stage presence, Thomas said.

The winners, for individual grade levels, in writing and speech, will be announced on Thursday.

Thomas said all students who participated will receive a certificate of achievement, and the works of winners will be published in a school district literary magazine. She added that the school system will host a reception for the students on April 24, at 6 p.m., in the Professional Learning Center, located at 1087 Battle Creek Road, in Jonesboro.