By Lisa Hughes

MEDFORD (CBS) – In the days leading up to President Biden’s inauguration, Medford Schools Superintendent Dr. Marice Edouard-Vincent felt the tension so many people shared. Would the event take place peacefully? Would the ceremony itself mark a new, peaceful chapter in American history?

When those questions were answered with an inaugural celebration void of violence, Dr. Edouard-Vincent was able to exhale. And, she wondered, what could the Medford school community do to encourage a spirit of togetherness?

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Reflecting on the inaugural, she was struck by the poise and passion of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, who in 2019, presented her poetry to Medford students at the middle school. Dr. Edouard-Vincent decided to launch a poetry contest.

The theme is UNITY. The rules are simple. Poems may be submitted by students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Ten lines or less. Non-verbal students may enter illustrations. Students for whom English is not their primary language can enter poems in their dominant language.

The idea was to offer students a way to express themselves. “I think poetry allows for so much freedom of expression,” Dr. Edouard-Vincent explained. “The overarching theme of unity is harmony; working together and getting along. Starting over. A new start for everyone.”

The contest launched on January 22. The superintendent received her first poem on January 23 from a six-year old whose poem expressed hope that President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris could help heal the world in a pandemic.

Since then, she has received dozens of poems from students who not only believe that unity is possible but who feel a responsibility to make it happen.

Ten year-old Ibrahim Ahmad is confident that he and his peers will create a more harmonious world. “You can always be unified,” he said. “It just takes a group of people willing to be unified and willing to work together.” His mom, Saima chimed in with a word that made them both nod. “Respect.”

After Ibrahim finished his three poems (he just finished a poetry unit in December and is feeling especially motivated) he read them to his parents who could not have been more proud. “I was really impressed and touched by the way he wrote it and the thought behind it,” Saima said. “It was very hopeful.”

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Eleven-year-old Violet Bell also entered a poem. Her poem ends:

“Then I turn the corner and see people, and more people singing along

Their hands joined, their voices soaring,

Singing as a community.

Black, white, gay, bi,

Singing in unity.”

Violet, who also appreciated Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, acknowledges that the work of unifying a divided country is “the hard part.” But she says, with attention and openness, it is achievable. “We are all humans. So we should treat each other like that.”

That sense of hope ripples through the poems Dr. Edouard-Vincent has received so far. Speaking with Lisa Hughes at the Roberts Elementary, she was beaming beneath her mask when asked about the students’ attitudes about unity. “I believe it is something that is achievable because they realize what was happening before wasn’t working,” Dr. Edouard-Vincent said. “They want to make the world a better place. And I believe this is the generation that is going to be able to do that.”

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The deadline for entries in the Mustang Unity Poetry Contest (for Medford students k-12) is Feb. 22. One winner from each of three categories—elementary, middle school and high school—will be chosen for both hybrid students and remote students—for a total of six winners. The student poets who win will be invited to present their poems at the March 8 Medford School Committee meeting.

Lisa Hughes