A highlight on my annual calendar is the Tom Lee Poetry and Spoken World Contest for high school students in Shelby County.  It is an annual reminder that creativity continues to be an essential part of our community and there is a deep reservoir of it in our local classrooms.

While winning students’ submissions each year are startling in their quality, their work has  special importance this year, coming in the midst of a blizzard of news coverage, crime reports,  and reports that sometimes seem to suggest that “juveniles” in Memphis are beyond redemption.

When combined with the post last week about the 18 graduates in the M.O.S.T. scholarship program, the poetry contest is compelling proof to the contrary. 

The annual contest is sponsored by Baptist Memorial Hospital and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.  It is a program of the River Parks Partnership as part of Tom Lee Day observance on May 8  each year, the anniversary of the day in 1925 when the African American laborer saved 32 people from drowning when their steamer capsized in the Mississippi River. 

Students are not required to write about Tom Lee but can draw inspiration from his values.

Here’s the winning poem which was written by Ana Hunter of Hutchison High School:

The River Cries

Momma’s hands was —were warm as we walked down by the river

The heels of her Sunday shoes clicked against the pavement

Well, she called ‘em her Sunday shoes,
But I was confused why she was wearing ‘em on a Friday
She told me not to worry,
That it was a momma’s problem, but I think she was trying to downplay
Either way, we kept on walking.

That click-clack of her shoes picked up when the River started to cry.

I wondered why
The river was so so blue
The river that never was,
‘least it sure wasn’t when I saw it,
but the way it cried
Tears and wails so hot and loud
I swear I saw a son rush to dry its eyes.

I wondered what could cause something to capsize
too much weight, too much motion, or God’s wrath taking flight?
To tell the truth, to grab onto that thought, I didn’t have much time
Momma pulled me faster and faster like she was afraid
the river’s howling would swallow us alive
but of course, she would never say that; that’s something she’d deny.

I watched Momma keep on walking as my shoes failed to click clack
They were stuck against the ground like a white dress covered in coal, so black
I just didn’t understand,
Maybe I was too taken with the why
Why was that man so capable of being a hero
While I just stood there with fear—caught in fright
A man whose skin looked just about the same as mine
Taking hold of people I could see were porcelain white.

I’d never seen so many folks play in the water, acting as if they were about to die
Until I saw him pull them on a boat, and they gasped while being refilled with life
I wanted to keep on watching, seeing how that man was so strong
Didn’t hesitate to reach into the water, grabbing hands, hair, just about anything
To get those people free of the river and get some air into their lungs
But when I got tugged, snatched, Momma’s hands wasn’t—weren’t warm no more
They were just about as cold as the river was before her uproar


Second Place was written by Riley Hancock from Crosstown High School:


I have never seen the shape of my own face.
Still, every morning I mold it into a pleasant one.
I long to know what the twists and cracks in my visage reveal.
What do others see when they gaze into my eyes?
A scared child? A selfless woman?
I cross reference their reaction with my database.
The threads around my core are whisked away
all at once as the stranger in front of me peers deep into my heart.
I wonder what he gleans in the depths of my chest.
Past the bravado and the pulp, the valves of my heart
tap a secret message in a code I don’t speak.
The stranger hears the code deep inside my body,
and already he knows me better than I know myself.
Still, I move from one person to another. Leaving nothing
but the echo of my being behind.


Third Place was written by Guadalupe Moctezuma Gatica of Memphis Central High School:

Corazon de Caracol

Quien se ha recostado en tu pecho sabe que no existe sitio en el mundo ni existe
nada que te haga caer en un sueno profundo con solo recostar tu cabeza.
Estar alli, cerquita de tu corazon, es la cura para cualquier insomnio porque
en ese lugarcito se escucha una y otra vez el sonido de olas cantandome que todo estara bien,
enredando mis oidos y haciendome naufragar como marinera en tormenta

Heart of a snail (translation)

Whoever has leaned on your chest knows that
there is no place in the world and there will be
nothing that will make you fall into a deep sleep
just by lying down your head

Being there, close to your heart, is the cure for
any insomnia because in that little place you can hear
again and again the sound of waves
singing to me that everything will be fine,
entangling my ears and making me shipwreck like a sailor in a storm