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The host’s untamed hair bent in time with his strides as he glided up to the microphone. His words seemed to drag as he spoke. Distinctly annunciating every consonant, he announced the scores of the poets prior to his entry. His free hand lingered on his waxy dreadlocks. It felt as if he were purposefully dawdling to build up my growing anxiety. I knew this was it; there was nothing more that he could possibly do to put off my moment. My name left his lips so definitely and so genuinely that it sounded as if he had known me intimately for years. His voice was a pistol at the beginning of an Olympic race; it filled me with relief, eagerness, and fear. Fear that the words that I had been analyzing so diligently for the past few months wouldn’t stream out of my mouth in a fashion identical to the host’s. Fear that this Chicago crowd wouldn’t be as open-minded as they looked. Fear that the saying “Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game” was, in fact, garbage. But then again, if that phrase was garbage in this lecture hall full of authors, whose fault would that be?
“You look a little pale. Are you all right, Hanna?” She spoke with concern. When I couldn’t answer in a steady voice, I really started to second-guess the confidence I had gone to bed with last night. I glanced out the cab’s window at the snowflakes that resembled white satin falling from the gray sky. For so early in the afternoon, it was the darkest gray I had seen in a long time.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said as convincingly as I could.
“Well, you don’t look fine. It’s okay to be nervous, love. I would be nervous too if I was reading my poetry to a room full of college kids.” Aunt Hilary spoke softly, like she didn’t want the driver to hear. I let my attention fall on the two names that were carelessly carved into the pleather seats in a border of a lopsided heart. I smiled. A sudden jolt quickly brought me out of my reverie.
“Columbia College, right? Up here on the left?” The cabbie’s thick city accent made my shoulders tense up. I got out of the cab, which drove off even before I closed the door. I watched my shoes join and part with the slush until we reached the opaque double doors.
We entered in silence, but chaos met us with open arms. Clusters of students wore matching shirts with their team names, team sponsors scrambled around in search of a schedule, individual poets stood in a group, yet each was staring at his or her own marked-up sheet of notes.
It suddenly occurred to me that that’s where I should be. I nervously stumbled to the front table and received a “Hello My Name Is” sticker; my hands trembled so that although my name is only five letters long, it was completely illegible. I dragged my reluctant feet to join the rest of the slammers.
Orange plastic chairs scuffed across the linoleum as friends bunched together, leaving empty scars across the floor. The florescent lights went out, and hollers filled the lecture hall, a sign of readiness. Behind the low stage was a window that was shared with the train station next door. It allowed little light, and the exposed pipes rattled and shrieked when the train passed. The conversations were uninterrupted by this, and I observed, as worry waved through my body, I might be the only newbie in the room.
The first individual poet was introduced and stepped onto the stage, followed by two teams and another individual. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could count those before me on one hand. Just five left before I had to go up there and spill my heart out to a room of strangers and their families?
Five: A boy about 17, with dark hair in an unkempt ponytail at the nape of his neck. His ashen skin awkwardly combined with a dark T-shirt that clung to his sickly ribs.
Four: A young woman of 15, with tightly woven, ornate braids that accented her dark, shadowy skin. Her torn, fitted sweatshirt said “Stimax,” which I later learned was her team name. She spoke of peace and drugs in free-flowing verses that riled up the audience.
Three and Two: Boys who could have passed for mid-twenties, but were 18, decked out in matching Nike Premiums splattered with vivid paint. Their jeans were loose, but their words streamed out continuously and tediously for what seemed like hours.
I traced a circle on my knee over and over as the host ascended the stage holding a coconut banana smoothie.
The music began again and he announced my name slowly, which – in comparison with my bolt to the platform – seemed like an eternity. The music faded, and so did the crowd noise: the chairs, the train, the rattling and shrieking of the open piping. All that was left was me and the microphone.
My nerves surged out along with my words; no stalls, no stumbles, no stutters. And to be honest, I had never meant anything I said prior to that moment like I meant the things on the paper crammed in my pocket that day.
But I didn’t need the paper as a safety net. I didn’t need the notes on my hand (as illegible as they now were), nor did I need the applause and the congratulatory remarks I received after I descended slowly, chin up, from the platform.
What I did need was that surge. And that’s all anyone really needs.