When I was in fourth grade I entered my first poetry contest. The competition, Reflections, was nation wide and it included categories such as art, video, and musical score. Each year Reflections had a theme that the responding entries should capture. The year of my first poetic entry was "What if..."
I was a big Shel Silverstein fan back then. I read his poetry like it was kid crack, which is what Silversteins poetry is I think. Child cocaine. It always made me feel giddy and crazy, I wanted to play outside and "feel the world." And it wasn't a normal desire, like the day -to-day terrozing of a cult-de-sac with the rest of the neighborhood kids. It was a blatant, I-read-about-a-girl-who-ate-a-whale-and-now-I-want-to-frolick-in-the-overgrown-grass-of-my-front-yard sort of yearning. And i hate the word frolick. Whitman is great, but Silverstein knew how to put the desire of natural imagination in children as well as adults.
So thus inspired by A Light in the Attic's spindly drawings and kooky phrases, I came up with the piece "Robotic Tot," which i thought fit the What if theme quite nicely (what if...there was a robotic thought. nice linear transition) I wrote about this fanatastic baby girl machine who never cried, never messed, and was a cheerful sparkling child. The only downside was when you picked her up she was hollow, there was no cherub flesh to kiss, no flimsy little hand to grip. A whimsical, adorable poem with a nice little backdrop of social commentary about the current and future dependence on technology and what that is doing to our "humanity." ...Well the first part anyway.
I remember painstakingly writing the poem out on lined paper for my final product. Next to it I drew a terrifying conceptual drawing of my mind's image of the robotic tot. What I envisioned as a sweet, baby robot thing came out like Linda Blair and the plastic baby head spider from Toy Story had a love child. I am not one for follow through or editing, I thought, eh, good enough.
The entries were collected and posted in my elementary school's tiled hallway. It took me about an eon to find my little white half sheet. I remember passing it often to re-read and brush my fingers across my brilliance. Oooh, that's good, I would secretly complement myself. I waited with great expectation for the winners to be announced.
I guess Reflections was kind of a big deal. The whole school assembled and the first place winner of the poetry contest would get to read his or her poem to the entire school. From a podium. with a microphone. I waited expectantly in the audience, next to my classmates and teachers, my stomach twisting with nerves as I went though various surprised reactions. Finally, after droning on about the fourth and third place holders, second place went to some third grader. Didn't care. Then the first place winner was announced. And it...was not me. It was Molly Mcgonagle.
Molly Mcgonagle was a tomboy. She had short brown hair, three brothers and freckels across her nose. We were friends, and she'd always vouch for me in sports, which was very nice of her. I liked Molly very much, but at the "What if..." winner's ceremony, I hated her. I continued to hate her through the applause, through her sheepish walk to the stage. I seethed through our principal's congratulatory and laudable minispeech, through Molly's slow and smiling acceptance of her trophy award. I continue to stew until some minion ran accross the stage and handed Molly her poem. It was a beautifully caligraphed piece, monted on a giant piece of azure constriction paper. A hand-drawn globe accompanied her scribings, completed with faintly etched continents and the longitude latitude lines. Damn. The paper was so huge, that Molly had to keep turing it to her to read. It presented a slight dilemma for her as she wanted to face the poem/art out to the audience but could't read it at the same time. She ended up flattening the thing against the small podium face, dragging it across the microphone as she did. Inwardly, I snickered.
The poem was about the world, and peace. What if...the world had peace. Something like that. Half of me was outraged, and half of me felt like a dunce, idiot, stupid, naive, soft, sissy kid. Her poem kind of sucked. Molly wasn't a writer, she was really good at tether ball. I was the weird, frizzy haird creative type. I wrote about infinite possibilties, rainbows, youth, man v.s. machines and she wrote about fucking world peace. Boy were you wrong Shel Silverstein. The same old same old pageant girl answer had won a contest based around creating something that is totally imaginative and impossible. Yet as she fumbled through her trite and cliched prose, I knew it wasn't her fault. I later looked at the other winner's pieces: What if... nobody got extinct. What if...the indians were our friends.What if...my mother loved me. and I got it. The judges of this "contest" weren't looking for innovation or originality, they were there for the sob story! the policial statement! the historical reference!
I was dissillusioned but felt wildly dangerous over my findings. I plotted, which is unusual for a fourth grader, to write the grandest, most ridiculous historically accurate sob story with a political undercurrent that had ever been written. A year later, the theme for Reflections was announced: Suddenly I turn around.
For about two weeks I was flummoxed. I thought about writing on the dependence of women on cosemetics and over priced fashion, but nixed it due its limited audience. What is most affecting? What's the worst thing that has ever happened to the human race? Then my fifth grade, American history influenced mind answered. It said: War.
Which War? I asked myself. Why choose when there were so many? I didn't want to overload the judges with stanzas, so I picked four: Revolutionary, Civil, WWII, and Vietnam (I felt it had been long enough) There was one more stanza, with which I brought my message home. I can't remember the poem excatly but I do remember a few lines:
Suddenly I turn around,
the Third Reich is drawing near
We fight and die to liberate Europe
The Germans are our fear
Suddenly I turn around
Bullets fly in between the trees
Horrible napalm is floating down
ever, ever so slowly
And the last stanza:
Suddenly I turn around
The earth is bare and lonely
We've got to love and care for each other...
Don't you see?
My mother thought that was bold, ending my poem with a slightly admonishing, hypothetical question, but I knew it was gold. I was wild from last years rejection, cocky as a bull, with a take no prisoners attitude. Taking a cue from Molly, I mounted my handwritten-in-cursive poem on a red piece of construction paper, thinking red was a good stand-in for blood. Then I drew small black cartoon bombs, with their wick things emminating red and orange marker sparks. My mom said they looked cute. Cute!?! I was mildly infuriated and slightly set back. What if cute cost me the seriousness of first place? I thought about it, and decided I would have to depend on my words and not so much their presentation. Plus I was exhausted. Like I said, I am not so big on editing.
Im going to just fast track you, darling reader, to the winner's assmebly. I was on pins and needles walking to the auditorium. I hadn't thought about my poem in the same way I fawned over Robotic Tot. My desire to win was vengeful and hard this time. I went in there prepared, and like the soldiers in my poem, I would come out victorious. Just like America....Minus 'nam.
I walked in, and saw my parents beaming on folding chairs in the front row. This meant I had placed. But it didn't matter, I was after first. My normal, non crazy, unstinted self was surprised at my lack of excitment. But deep down I knew it was first or nothing. I had been exploited, now it was time to exploit.
And then I won. I think the crazed look left my eyes. I smiled graciously all the way up to the podium, and read without messing up too badly. I didn't really look out at the audience, my mother later told me, but I was nervous. Even though I had accomplished what I wanted, my knees shook as I stood in front of the school. Once my plotter's buzz wore off, I wasn't so tough. And the quiet, Shel Silvertein reading fifth grader liked it.
My poem won at the city and district level. When it failed to win the state, I wasn't as pissed as I thought I would be. I think deep down I knew the cartoon bombs were going to come back to haunt me. If only the state judges would've grasped my irony.