There’s a dour mood in America. Polarizing politics and an endless economic funk have caused many to lose faith in their government, and even one another. Preparing for doomsday has actually become a popular primetime television show.
I’m not buying it. Even with a rash of ignorant American journalists still trying to sell the failed notion that soccer will never succeed in this country (dude, it already has succeeded), I refuse to embrace the doom and gloom. Especially now that 30 elementary school children have slammed me back to reality with a heart-warming wake-up call known as the 6th annual America SCORES National Poetry SLAM!
Before I take you to this transformative event, let me give you a quick take on America SCORES and the work that they do. It’s a national non-profit organization that enriches the lives of children by integrating soccer, poetry, and service-learning into an award-winning after-school program in some of our nation’s toughest neighborhoods. Recognized by Forbes as one of the top youth organizations using sports to teach life lessons, America SCORES partners with public schools in low-income communities to provide a healthy outlet for structured recreation, academic achievement, and civic engagement. By tapping into the children’s passion and creativity, they help them lead healthier lives, become more engaged students, and develop the confidence and character to make a difference in the world.
America SCORES operates in 15 cities across the country. Of the 5,000 children it serves each year, 85-90 percent live below the poverty line – something to think about when you are accessing how this economy is cramping your style. Every spring, two poets from each city – selected from regional SLAMettes – earn a trip to New York City (special thanks to Southwest Airlines, who graciously flew them in) to participate in America SCORES National Poetry SLAM at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Poetry Time at the Apollo
The 6th annual America SCORES National Poetry SLAM was held Monday night, April 16, 2012. Frankly, I was pretty stoked just to be at legendary Apollo Theater. Things got even better when I wandered into the Green Room and met a US soccer legend named John Harkes. And let me tell you this about John Harkes. He is a great guy and completely down to earth. He schlepped all the way up from Virginia just to emcee the event and did a marvelous job of it. And he wasn’t just going through the motions. You could sense a real connection to the kids and the cause. A long-time advocate for youth development, Harkes is a board member of the America SCORES and has taken time off from his broadcast career to spend with his family and coach youth soccer with his wife, Cindi (that’s one lucky team!).
I also ran into the brilliant Psalm One, who was performing for – and eventually along with – the kids that evening. The rising rapper from Chicago was a volunteer for America SCORES back before her career blossomed. But she has kept true to her roots, and has been more than generous in her support of the program. Have a look at the work she has been doing with the America SCORES kids back here, and then hop over here to get a taste of her talent with a free download of Kids Right Now, the song she performed at the Apollo with Mikkey Halsted.
I should also note that the night’s honoree was Chris Heck, the president of business operations for the New York Red Bulls. And while I have done some recent whining about how little marketing the Red Bulls do here in New York City, Heck proved me wrong that night. Beyond MLS Works, the New York Red Bulls have been active supporters of America SCORES and their compatriots at FC Harlem. It was nice to see him receive an award for his work, and even better to have brought along some players to meet the kids: Mehdi Ballouchy, Kenny Cooper, Stephen Keel, Dax McCarty, and Jan Gunnar Solli. I had a chance to chat with a few of them, when they weren’t busy talking with the kids and signing autographs, and found them all to be extremely nice dudes. And, no, I didn’t tell Dax McCarty what a big fan I am, but I think he could sense it. Or maybe it was the aroma of my hyperactive sweat glands working their way through my suit on such a hot, muggy day.
The Kids Find Their Voices
I could go on about what an awesome job the folks at America SCORES did with the event, but let me get back to the actual show, the kids kicking their poems in front of a packed house at the Apollo. Despite my impeccable credentials as a journalist, the theater wouldn’t allow me to take photos during the performance, so Cesar Diaz and I hung out in the Green Room – the backstage of the backstage – with the kids as they waited to go on stage or wind down after their appearance.
On stage, they each stepped up to the mic, introduced by John “Captain for Life” Harkes, and delivered their poem. Some wrestled with shyness, and the intimidation of the Apollo, while others acted as if they were born to preach at the pulpit or rock Madison Square Garden. Some of the poems were insightful, and some were inspiring. Some were quite poignant, and a few were downright hysterical. But for 10 and 11 year-olds, they were all quite impressive.
The topics featured ranged from expected subjects like family, school, and soccer to weightier issues like race and the environment. But they were all seen through the honesty of a child’s eyes, which might just be the best way to look at such things.
Two of my favorite poets were Eric Bailey, an 11 year-old from St. Louis, and Jose Rocha, a 10 year-old from Dallas. Don’t get me wrong – Zimani Adams and Russett Sevilla did an excellent job representing America SCORES New York (they’ll always be golden in my book). But Bailey displayed an amazing presence and tackled heavy issues in his poem, Statistic, with a fresh, direct style that made you think. He filled the Apollo with booming words of wisdom. Rocha, on the other hand, filled the Apollo with laughter. Imagine a kid standing on stage, crossing his legs, and performing a poem called I Gotta Go. It was a scream, and he did it with a straight face – putting him on a very special list of the coolest cats to play the Apollo. Edgar Allen Poe would have been proud.
I was proud too, and I had only just met these kids. They all had something to say, and putting it into a poem – performed live, on stage – they made it worth listening to. And that’s something I don’t think we as adults do often enough…listening to children.
Sure, everyone thinks they listen to their own children. But are you really hearing them? Or are you busy formulating how you are going to respond in a way that will channel them into the best schools for a lucrative career and a lifetime of prosperity?
Voices We Should Listen To
In the wake of the Olympic qualification wash-out, there’s been plenty of debate about what’s wrong with American soccer. There’s talk about technique, style, tactics – every aspect of the game. But after seeing these kids shine on stage at the Apollo, I’m wondering if the problem lies in the fact that we are so obsessed with trying to tell these kids what to do that we end up smothering and stifling them.
Some blame our nation’s lack of international soccer success on kids not being able to play the game freely in the street, though even children in New York City can find time – and an open space – for that. As a society, we tend to be so rigid with our children – prescribing their entire lives with a “you must do this and do that if you are ever going to amount to anything” attitude – that kids rarely get a chance to develop their own voice, their own view, their own style.
And that is one of the reasons why America SCORES is worthy of our support. It’s genuinely making a difference in the lives of these children. It’s teaching them to have a voice. John Harkes was amazed at how confident and insightful these kids were. And credit goes to America SCORES, because they are teaching these kids that what they say is important, as is how they say it. And that translates to the way they play soccer – that their participation matters, as does the way they play the game. The same for their civic involvement.
Sure, these kids may not grow up to be the next Langston Hughes or Pablo Neruda, the next Lionel Messi or Thierry Henry, or the next Barack Obama or Cesar Chavez. But that doesn’t make their voices any less important – or their contribution to the game, or their community, any less significant.
In fact, I’m happy that kids like Eric Bailey and Jose Rocha are going to grow up to be the next Eric Bailey and Jose Rocha, because they seemed like wonderful young individuals, full of dreams, hope, and potential. And America SCORES has helped them find their voice – in the classroom, on the field, and in their communities. Perhaps it’s time for us to listen.
If you would like to support America SCORES and its effort to help children from low-income neighborhoods find their voices, on and off the pitch, you can make a donation or volunteer here. And if you work for a company that has a soccer team in the New York metropolitan area, there’s another fun way you can make a contribution. The America SCORES Cup is being held on Saturday, July 14 at Pier 40. Sign-up your team today!
PS – Southwest Airlines deserves a special shout-out as well, for