A growing number of Nebraska teenagers are staying after school to write poetry. At a time when arts often take a backseat to other subjects in school, the spoken word poetry competition, Louder than a Bomb, provides a creative outlet. And for some students that outlet is critical.
Sierra Huntsinger steps gingerly to the microphone and takes a deep breath. She’s staring into dazzling lights on stage before a thousand people, listening and cheering for her, and she’s sharing some of her most intimate thoughts.
"I am from an ugliness that cannot be enhanced by the color of a Covergirl lipstick;
It can only be disguised by the thick smile we wear as children.
It doesn’t bother me that I’m ugly.
It bothers me that I’m the only one who sees it.”
At Louder than a Bomb, teenagers truly bare their hearts on stage. Last week, the competition hosted its team finals at Omaha’s Holland Performing Arts Center. Teenagers from schools across Omaha and Lincoln stood up before their peers, parents and community to share their triumphs and humiliations. Some, like Shelby Nichols of Millard South High School, shared their struggles with gender identity:
“Bathrooms adorned with no trespassing signs made me a lawbreaker.
There may as well have been crime scene tape over Legos and boxer briefs.”
Others, like Katharen Hedges of Lincoln North Star, spoke of the difficulty of confronting a bully, when that bully is you:
“I will never forget the names of the little girls I called ugly,
Or the bruises I left on their self-esteem.
I’ll never forget the ‘sorry’s I never uttered.”
Huntsinger is a senior at Millard South in Omaha. She says writing and performing helps her release bottled up feelings. “I can’t tell my family how I feel in person but I can get it out on stage,” she says. “It just helps; it balances the tension that I hold back with them.”
Louder than a Bomb began in Chicago, and it’s in its third year in Nebraska. So far, it’s been wildly popular. It’s grown from 12 schools in Omaha to 32 across Nebraska and Council Bluffs with interest in Kansas City and Des Moines. “We just keep getting bigger and thankfully finding support in the community to let that expansion occur,” said Matt Mason, executive director of Nebraska Writers Collective, which runs the competition here.
Photo courtesy Matt Mason
Lincoln North Star writers perform a group piece. Katharen Hedges, second from right, performed "My Apology," which confronted her past as a middle school bully.
Louder than a Bomb exists in a landscape where maintaining those outlets is a constant struggle. Arts education is not typically tested, so arts classes often lose priority to key subjects in standardized tests such as math, reading and science. That’s too bad, says Marian Fey, head of Nebraskans for the Arts, an advocacy group for expanded arts education. Fey says studying the arts can actually help improve test scores in other areas.
“It is no longer just anecdotal evidence,” Fey said. “There is now hard, statistical data that shows that not just participation in the arts, but the more participation in the arts a student has the more positive correlation there is to high student achievement.”
Louder than a Bomb is offered freely to schools, which has helped it grow. Fey says after-school programs like the competition can’t take the place of regular arts classes for all students, but it helps fill the gap when arts classes are bumped because testing takes priority.
Watching the students interact, it’s clear the competition provides a supportive environment. Charlie Curtis-Beard, a senior from Lincoln High embodies that feeling, and for that, he took home the "Spirit of the Slam" award.
“This is cool,” he said backstage. “Young people write art and they share it to hundreds of people and it’s just like no one hates it. Everyone’s supportive. Everyone’s loving each other. This community is nothing but love and accepting people.”
Sierra Huntsinger felt that love when she stumbled on some of the lines in her poem. She heard clicking fingers and applause from her peers cheering her on and willing the words back to her mind. But for her, having the chance to express herself and be heard means so much more. Without it, she says, she wouldn’t be in a very good place.
“When I write I feel like nothing can hold me back, no parents, no issues, nothing,” she said. “I just write. I do it, and it’s good, and I love it.”
The Louder than a Bomb individual finals take place on Saturday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.