#FBF: Reminiscing About “The Judith French Poetry Recitation”

Back in 2013, fresh after seeing his first “Judith French Poetry Recitation,” Mr. Bishop wrote about the experience. With today being the day for the 2019 event, we thought it a good time to hit the flashback button to 2013…

LA the Big Winner After Class of 2014’s Poetry Recitation

My own stomach rolled nervously as I watched finalists prepare for their performances in the auditorium.

That retrograde (regurgitate?) emotion—fueled, no doubt, by repressed memories bearing images of regrettable attempts at acting and public speaking throughout my academic career—was further fueled by my new colleagues joking that new faculty are often asked to recite poems during the program and I would be next up on stage (to which I remarked my selection would be short and entitled “I Quit.”).



Franchesca Kiesling ’14


However, it was no joking matter to the 10 Lawrence Academy students who took the stage to entertain and enlighten their classmates and teachers during last Wednesday’s Judith French Junior Poetry Recitation Competition.

With selections from Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Primer for Blacks” to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” to Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, a wide swath of English verse stood as testament to the diversity of Lawrence’s student body as well as the breadth of their interests.

“I’m not so sure that the piece itself spoke to me with its story, so much as its language and sound did,” said Conrad Solomon of his poem by Poe. “Although the story does touch me emotionally, I find “Annabel Lee” to be almost like a piece of music that is pleasing to the ear.”

And, far from being immobilized by nerves, some of the finalists spoke about the empowerment inherent in the competition.

“Strangely enough, I found this process very enjoyable,” said Jonathan Mangini, who recited Jack Gilbert’s “Once Upon A Time”.

“For me, it was almost a treat to be able to recite poetry and bring about art to a whole school environment.

“Although, I’d have to say that I was most nervous in the classroom setting,” he added.

Jonny wasn’t the only member of the class of ’14 who found a certain amount of terror while looking into the eyes of their classmates.

“With 15 people staring at you [in the students’ individual classes], you feel and hear and see all the eyes staring you down and every minute gesture being done,” explained Franchesca Kiesling, who performed “Magic” by Gabriel Gadfly. “In front of 400, your eyes get lost in the crowd; you don’t see everyone as another pair of eyes, but as just another face.

“I must admit that beforehand I definitely had some nervous energy to expel, but once up there, it was easy.”

Franchesca, who could be seen frenetically reciting her lines to herself prior to the event, might have found it easy to calm down during the proceedings, however, it wasn’t so easy for everyone in the crowd to stem the strain.

“Yes, I do get nervous for the students as they perform,” admitted Mark Haman, long-time Lawrence English teacher and the afternoon’s master of ceremonies. “I will have seen each of them recite at least once before and have a sense of the possibilities for each.

“Some of the performers are my students, and for them I feel an especial concern, having seen them work hard throughout the stages of preparation. I worry about the distractions…[and] I worry about the gap between performers as the judges write their notes, aware that extending the wait for the remaining performers can only aggravate their nervousness.

“I don’t especially worry about the audience being restless, because nearly twenty years of these events has reassured me that many people, adults and students alike, feel that the recitation is one of the highlights of the school year,” he said.

After the recitation, Haman’s feelings seemed universal around campus, and even the highly competitive contestants were glad to see everyone’s performance rise to the occasion.

“What stood out particularly to me was the high caliber of poems that were recited…and how much courage it took for some of my classmates to get up on stage and recite their poems with gusto,” said Sebastian Sidney after his recitation of Brooks’ poetry. “This competition will always have a special place in my heart.”

But not all of the contestants—particularly the eventual winner—can actually recall their recital.

“I won’t remember reciting the poem itself,” Franchesca said. “It just came and went.

“But I’ll remember the slight nod of my head signifying I was finished and hearing everyone love it. That is my most favorite feeling.”

However, even though Kiesling’s recitation was adjudged the favorite, while she reviewed her own memories of the three competitions she’d witnessed since matriculating at Lawrence, Franchesca echoed the sentiments of many who witnessed the 2013 competition.

“Freshman year I thought it was so cool, and I had always wanted to do it,” she said. “Sophomore year I still thought the same thing, and I also thought of how brave everyone was.

“I think this year was the best of all though,” added Franchesca. “Our class owned this poetry recitation and if I was the judge, I’d let us all win.”