Teens speak up in oratory contest

Seventeen participants deliver essays based on quotations from black leaders


On a day when the rest of the city seemed to be relaxing - enjoying warm weather and the St. Patrick's Day parade - 17 teenagers gathered yesterday at a downtown museum to compete at something many adults find terrifying: speaking in public.

"I was so nervous when I got up there, my face was jumping all over the place and I didn't even remember what I said when I sat back down," said Khase Johnson, a senior at Carver Vocational Technical High School.

Johnson conquered his demons: The 17-year-old Baltimore resident took third place.

For the annual Black History Oratory Contest, sponsored by WJZ-TV, participants wrote essays based on one of three inspirational quotations by black leaders. The quotations were picked by the station.

For yesterday's competition, the students had to memorize their essays and deliver them to an audience of more than 150 people. A four-person panel selected three winners who were awarded checks for $300, $200 and $100.

Tierra Patterson, a senior at Western High School, took top honors after giving a speech so moving that adults in the audience rocked back and forth, nodding in agreement.

"I wrote it the day before the deadline," she said during an intermission. "I get nervous around people I know, but I don't know these people so I wasn't nervous."

Patterson didn't have much time to bask in the glory of winning - she needed to run off to a union hall to take part in a dance performance.

Second-place winner Joseph Howard, 17, of Bel Air has been giving speeches in his room since he was 8, according to his mother, Joyce Howard. "Joseph was considered learning-disabled," she said after her son won the prize. "I said, `Focus on what you are good at.' He's done a lot of public speaking."

Her son beamed after the contest and said that when he gets up in front of a group he feels "a sudden sense of calmness."

The group of teens was selected by Susan Otradovec, the station's public affairs manager, after she read about 150 essays submitted by high school students from Baltimore, surrounding counties and Pennsylvania. Students recited their work at a second-floor auditorium in the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

One of the more powerful messages of the day didn't take an award. Tendai Chinhakwe, 14, of Elkridge wrote an essay that criticized how blacks are shown in the media as "being a hustler or being a pimp."

Keying off a quotation by Maryland abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet that "no oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance," she urged other blacks not to be "enslaved by themselves" by accepting the negative images.

Resistance takes courage, she said, noting that at her school if black students dress "in a way that doesn't `represent their race' they are ostracized."

Many of the students said they practiced their speeches in front of mirrors, their families and their teachers. Johnson was particularly creative, loading his speech into a karaoke machine and reading it over and over again.

Ashley Williams, a ninth-grader at Milford Mill Academy, said that memorizing the words was easy but that she wished she had used more hand gestures during her performance.

The difficulty of the teenagers' task was underscored by host Kai Jackson: The WJZ-TV news anchor had to do four on-camera takes before he was happy with a promotional message taped with the contest winners. The veteran broadcaster joked: "See how hard it is for me, and I only have two lines to recite."


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