When fourteen student writers assembled outside of the Portland Art Museum on a Saturday in early November, it wasn’t raining. It certainly wasn’t warm, and the acute sunlight was misleading, but the fall day was dry, an elemental improvement from previous Portland Book Festivals.
By 10 o’clock that morning, the Park Blocks had already seen thousands of faces weave in and out of author panels, signings, and readings. Morning stepped into midafternoon, and visitors swelled toward tater tots, Hawaiian lunch bowls, and crêpes in the center hub of the festival. As the crowds ebbed back into the host venues, the group of students waited for directions, a scattering of bright yellow books among the bags, programs, and phones in their hands. They were poets, comic artists, essayists, and short fiction writers, all in high school, and all moments away from reading their recently published work in front of friends, family, and other festival visitors.
The student anthology is the culmination of a year of Writers in the Schools programming, during which established writers from all genres teach creative writing alongside teachers in Portland high schools. More than 1,000 students participated in WITS in the 2017-18 school year, and all were encouraged to submit their work for the student anthology, this year titled Change Cannot Be Tamed. A sampling of those whose creative work was published in print were asked to read at the festival.
The mood was nervous and optimistic as the performers lined up at the back of the Miller Gallery. Students laughed and whispered, had quick asides with parents in the audience, and glanced over the piece they would be reading. After introductions, Jovita Luna, first in line, took her yellow anthology and made a solo march down the center aisle toward the microphone. She read her poem “Change” about growth and triumphantly overcoming negative misconceptions. After that, the students naturally fell into a rhythm, passing each other in the aisle as one left the podium to a soundtrack of applause, and the next approached it.
The writing of young people serves as a reminder that a breadth of creativity and a depth of emotion are not limited to those with more years of life. Like the title of the anthology, like the world at large, change and hope remained a motif for the reading; a young woman possessed by an enchanted journal, the nostalgia of a father’s storytelling, a visual poem featuring squares of the same size and the vastly different objects and moments they represent, a centuries-old feud brought to peace through time and space. One student wrote about ending a friendship that had become draining and unhappy, another read a poem in Spanish. “No se trata de ser el mejor del mundo / Se trata de dar todo lo que puedas” he had written. (It’s not about being the best in the world / It’s about giving everything you can).
When the event wrapped up, parents and teachers gave well-earned congratulations, and the nerves that buzzed down the students’ line before the reading had settled into a subtle hum of pride.