Andrew Chilton wants to bring a little heart and soul to Kern County.

The Stockdale High School English teacher aims to do that by introducing local students to “Poetry Out Loud,” a national competition that challenges students to thumb through more than 900 poems, select one that speaks to them, then recite it to peers and a panel of judges.

A dozen Stockdale students, whittled down from more than 100 competitors, made it to the county finals Wednesday, where their audience was a bit more daunting. It included a smattering of parents and community members, but also Kern County’s poet laureate, Don Thompson.

It was Kern's first "Poetry Out Loud" competition, and something Chilton said he hopes to expand next year. Other high schools were invited to compete, however none could make it this year, Chilton said.

“We’re trying to take poetry, which is something that’s studied as a written skill and something you analyze in school, out of a textbook, and trying to make it real and alive for students,” Chilton said. “You can really tell when they connect to a poem when they recite it because it sounds like it’s theirs, and they really embody the poem.”

Such was the case, Chilton said, for Frances Eghre-Bello, a Stockdale senior who won the school’s preliminary competition. She read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird,” in a recitation that Chilton said brought the poem to life.

Eghre-Bello interprets that poem as a metaphor for slavery. Eghre-Bello, who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria, never faced those struggles, however she said it’s something that resonates with her.

“It comes from a place of struggle, and I’m not saying I’ve struggled personally, but I guess we have similar points of view because I’m also a black girl,” Eghre-Bello said.

A few moments later, she was delivering a passionate recitation of that piece, her voice rising and falling with the changes in the poem’s meter. It was met with rousing applause.

That connection to literature is something Chilton wants in Kern County, which he said focuses a lot on hard sciences and mathematics, but has let the arts fall a bit by the wayside.

“I think that we neglect a certain part of a kid's education,” Chilton said. “Heart and soul.”

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