“Testaments of hope … Where do we go from here?” was the theme of the 12th annual Martin Luther King Youth Oratorical contest Monday, in which middle and high school students in Prince William delivered original speeches.
“We have traveled so far, yet we haven’t traveled far enough,” said Dominique Steele, a contest winner and 10th-grader at Potomac High School in Woodbridge. Steele’s speech focused on accomplishments made by blacks and encouraged goals and dreams.
While some speakers focused on the African American history surrounding King’s legacy, most turned to the world-changing events of Sept. 11, relaying messages of hope and brotherhood.
“The debris of devastation is all around us … the smoke escaped New York and it is with us here,” said Daniel Bastian in an outcry that stung the ears of the 2,000 spectators.
Bastian, a second-year participant in the oratorical contest and eighth-grader at Benton Middle School in Manassas, focused his speech on a utopian “mountaintop” where peace and love reign over strife. “On the mountaintop there is no discrimination … no racism … humankind can dream freely.”
Contest winner Paakow Acquah, an 11th-grader at Osbourn High School in Manassas, compared the historical struggles faced by blacks to the backlash experienced by Arabs and Muslims in the United States.
“The day when people will be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character has not arrived and its arrival is long overdue,” Acquah said.
Mentioning world conflicts in Pakistan and India, Acquah centered his visions of hope in pacifism. “Each one believes that they are right and God and truth on their side … but there are no clean hands in a bloodbath.”
The voices of idealism echoed from speaker to speaker as the audience cheered and shouted.
“I know that words will not win all wars,” bellowed Victoria Nguyen, also a contest winner and seventh-grader at Fred Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge. Nguyen said she hopes future generations will learn from King’s values and dream.
Melissa Albright, an 11th-grader at Gar-Field High School, preached on the spiritual revival in the United States after Sept. 11. “We were so used to the sunny days that we forgot what the rainy days felt like. … but when the storm clouds rolled in [God’s] name was the first we called on.”
Stunned by the series of spellbound performances, audience and family members bombarded the stage following the performances.
“I was really nervous, but I knew she could do a good job,” said Jennifer Jones Calhoun, whose daughter Jade Calhoun, an eighth-grader at Grace E. Metz Middle school in Manassas, also won. “I am very proud.”
“It’s amazing that young people in this county can take the theme and develop it … they defined it, described it, and how they feel. We’ve got some talented children out there,” said Joann Bagnerise, community relations coordinator for the Martin Luther King Day committee.
Bagnerise said she was impressed with the way the students turned to Sept. 11 and spoke about hate and violence. “It’s in everybody’s mind, in everything that we do. It is something that will never go away.”
Staff writer Louise Cannon can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 123.