Assembly features inaugural poet
Friday, March 29 was not a normal day for students at Scarborough Middle School. Gone were the math books, the history lessons and the science experiments. In their place, students quietly read for the majority of the sixhour school day as part of Scarborough Middle School’s annual Read-a-Thon.
The Read-a-Thon was started nine years ago to help instill a love of reading in the students and celebrate literacy – all while earning money for classroom expenses. As part of this year’s celebration, Richard Blanco, who wrote a poem for President Obama’s second inauguration earlier this year, spoke to middle school students about poetry and what it was like to appear before the president.
Shelly Tsujiura, a lead teacher in the Abnaki wing who helped organize this year’s Read-a-Thon, said the students spent the month collecting pledges either per page or as a flat sum for their participation in the schoolwide event.
“It is our March event,” she said. “Every month we try to have a big event for the school.”
“We have two goals with the Reada Thon,” said Karen Rand, the lead teacher in the Penobscot wing who helped Tsujiura organize the Read-a-Thon. “It’s a fundraiser for the teams, but also an opportunity to celebrate literacy. We try to incorporate fundraising incentives, as well as literacy events.”
The money raised, Rand said, is used for classroom activities, materials or trips. As of Friday morning, the students had raised more than $126,000 through the Read-a-Thon.
For the last three years, the middle school has had Maine writers visit the students as part of the Read-a-Thon festivities. The first year, Maurissa Guibord, a Scarborough author who wrote the fantasy novel “Warped” spoke. Last year, Sarah Thomson, a Portland-based author who has written more than 25 books for young readers, spoke at the school assembly.
This year, Blanco, a Bethel-based poet, spoke. Blanco gained national acclaim in January when he was chosen to read “One Today,” a poem he wrote specifically for Obama’s Jan. 21 inauguration.
Rand said she decided to reach out to Blanco after seeing how transfixed the school’s students became with his poetry after the inauguration.
“A lot of our classrooms, after the inauguration, showed him reading his poem, so everyone was very familiar with him and started analyzing his poetry,” she said. “The kids were very mesmerized by his poetry.”
Turns out Blanco, the son of Cuban immigrants who came to this country as an infant, was willing to come speak at the school.
“I like to do events like this so students realize there are poets who are contemporary and are accessible,” Blanco said after the hour-long appearance.
His goal, he said, is to get students to “appreciate poetry and learn how to write poetry.”
Blanco, who has a Bachelor of Science Degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in creative writing, has been writing poetry for 25 years. He called “One Today,, “The most important poem of my life.”
Blanco told the students he was asked to write three poems for the event, one of which would be chosen by the inaugural committee. The challenge, he said, was creating a poem that was personal enough to read with passion, yet general enough to resonate with other people.
“To me, writing poetry is about telling my story, but it is also about connecting to something bigger,” he told the 800 middle school students about his creative process.
Blanco said he was driving in Massachusetts when he received a phone call from his agent that he had been chosen as the fifth inaugural poet. Previous inaugural poets have included Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993, Miller Williams in 1997 and Elizabeth Alexander in 2009.
“There is no set selection process,” he said. “It’s like winning the lottery without buying a lottery ticket. You just get a phone call one day. I’ve written books, so obviously someone, either President Obama or Michelle, or someone else, had seen my work.”
Blanco has had a busy schedule since the inauguration, but has appeared in greater Portland several times, including Feb. 26 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland and March 28 for Glitterati, a fundraiser for the Telling Room, a youth writing center in Portland. He will next be appearing in the city Friday, April 12 at the University of Southern Maine for CeleSoirée: A Celebration of Immigration Through Performing Arts.
Each appearance, he said, helps him get his message out that poetry is alive and well today.
“Part of the reason I am here is because poetry needs to be talked about. It needs to have a place in our culture like we talk about movies or talk about music,” he said.
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