Experience is the best inspiration.
So says Jalen Daoust, a sixth grader at Maumee Valley Country Day School.
The 12-year-old took first place in the middle school poetry competition sponsored by the Erase the Hate Campaign, a collaboration of Toledo-area groups that strives to foster respect among people from different racial, religious, and cultural groups.
Jalen's winning poem, "The Hobo in the Box," sprang from an experience he had in Toronto a few years ago when he saw homeless people for the first time. They were living in cardboard boxes.
The experience got him thinking about the differences between his comfortable life and the lives of the homeless men he saw. Surely, they didn't have a closet full of clothes, as he did, and they had less food to eat.
Putting pen to paper - or rather fingers to keyboard - the young poet wrote:
like a king last night
the person outside
ate nothing last night
I threw the leftovers
in the trash
I bet a thousand dollars
I have so many clothes,
I could not do one
load of laundry for a month
and still have clean clothes
that same hobo
some nice warm clothes"
Jalen said the fact that passers-by tried to ignore the homeless made an impression on him.
"Lots of people were just walking by," he said.
With his poem, he wanted to get out the message that "you should love everybody. Just because somebody is going through a tough part of their life doesn't mean you shouldn't accept him."
Jana Foster, Jalen's English teacher, said she required her students to enter the Erase the Hate competition because the experience would enable them to flex their writing muscles and make them think about diversity.
"It was one more thing to increase their awareness," she said. "One of the things we're studying is ancient cultures such as Hinduism and Buddhism. So we talk about worldwide differences."
For Erica Lee, a ninth grader at Toledo Early College High School, the poetry competition was an opportunity to write her poem "I'm Not Who You Think I Am," a study of how prejudice and stereotyping can lead to misunderstanding.
The 15-year-old took second place in the contest's high school division. Her poem's opening stanza is:
"I'm the Muslim that is not ashamed,
To still proudly wear my headdress out to eat,
Even if I have the fear of getting beat,
Why can't you see me for the pacifist I am?
I'm not the terrorist you think I am."
Erica said she wanted to show how "we judge people before we actually get to know them."
Randy Nissen, her social studies teacher, said Erica's poem was well received during readings.
"People came up to her afterward and wanted to talk to her about it," he said.
Judy Lee Trautman, Erase the Hate co-chairman, said this year was the contest's fifth. It also included poster and video competitions.