A fantastic celebration took place in Portland on the evening of May 22. It was Big Night, the annual showcase of work by students at the Telling Room, Maine’s nonprofit writing center for high school, middle school and elementary school students.
The energy at USM’s Hannaford Hall was joyous and electric. Telling Room writers buzzed around, smiling for the camera, laughing with pre-event jitters, offering to sell and autograph this year’s anthology, Atomic Tangerine.
A collection of poems and stories by students from schools across Maine—Kittery, Brewer, Richmond, Portland, Westbrook, Waldoboro and Topsham, among others—Atomic Tangerine has color as its theme. The anthology features the work of 36 young writers, beautifully crafted pieces about a little pink bootie, a woman dressed in red, the experience of having black skin in an overwhelmingly white state and the hues of evening light on a Maine beach.
After just the right amount of lobby mingling, Big Night’s large crowd settled into the auditorium for a series of readings, videos and even a musical performance by an inspired group of elementary school students who punctuated their words with dance moves. There was lots and lots of well-deserved applause.
Some Telling Room writers were born here. Others have moved here from Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, bringing powerful stories to their new homes in Maine. One of the latter is Zainab Almatwari, a sophomore at Westbrook High School, writes in both Arabic and English.
Her poetry bowled me over when we first met a year ago during a student showcase at Books in the ‘Brook, a monthly writing salon in Westbrook. Zainab’s contribution to Atomic Tangerine is a poem called Rocks Into My Stomach, which has as its closing lines:
I’m the fire that ends a poem and starts a story
I’m a different kind of glory
And while the fire is still burning inside me
I see the reflection of the sea.
Zainab is one of more than 4,000 – that’s FOUR THOUSAND! – students who participated in Telling Room writing programs during the past year. They include after-school groups like Writers Block, Publishing Workshop and Young Writers & Leaders, the program that received the 2015 National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award from then-First Lady Michelle Obama.
With a legion of volunteer mentors, the Telling Room teaches the fundamentals of writing and encourages students to broaden their storytelling skills with podcasts and radio shows. It also offers college essay workshops and one-on-one programs to assist students with their applications for post-secondary education. Its programs build literacy skills, confidence and community.
The Telling Room is a gem, a place that makes a difference in many lives. For more information about this remarkable organization that has as its mission the support and nurture of young writers, go here: https://www.tellingroom.org/
And next year, consider attending Big Night. Trust me, you’ll come away inspired.