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A celebration of youth

Event has brought local students’ poetry to life for 35 years

The Osterhout Concert Theater overflowed with pride and energy on May 23 as parents, grandparents and siblings all sought to support the community’s 375 newly published young poets.

The crowd was gathered for Harpur College’s 35th annual Poetry and the Children celebration, an event that draws students in second through eighth grades from numerous local schools. Poetry and the Children honors the late Robert Pawlikowski, a published poet and Binghamton creative writing instructor who died in 1975 while vacationing with his family. Pawlikowski’s wife, Mary Ann, attends every year, noting that her late husband “had a very deep love of children” and felt that “teaching poetry at a young age was … very magical and wonderful.” The program stands as an enduring testament to Pawlikowski’s life, one that he devoted to cultivating the expressive and literary capabilities of both his own children and his many students.

Provost Donald Nieman, former dean of Harpur College, began the event by rousing the audience with a greeting that produced animated cheers. He held a thick book over his head, displaying an anthology containing each child’s poem.

“I think I was 26 before I published anything, so you all have a head start!” Nieman told the students.

The Office of the Dean of Harpur College compiled and published the poetry anthology showcased by Nieman and distributed copies to each attending student and teacher, and to local school libraries. The Oakdale Mall and Susan Clark-Johnson ’67 also contributed support to the event.

Nieman next introduced “the Derek Jeter of poetry”: Maria Mazziotti Gillan, an acclaimed poet who is both director of the University’s Creative Writing Program and a professor of poetry. A Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers award recipient in 2011, she addressed the students with great warmth and infectious enthusiasm, relating pieces of her personal history and the powerful ways in which writing has influenced her from an early age. She then chose several students at random, inviting them to take the stage to read their poems. All students later had the chance to recite their works in smaller theaters throughout the Anderson Center. Before finishing her talk with the students, however, Gillan encouraged them all to “find something that really sets your life on fire” and to “keep writing: it’s a way of shaping your life.”

Gillan calls the event “a very important program.”

“The more doors we open for [the children] and the more things we expose them to that are not plastic and fast-food kinds of things, the more chance they have of having a life that has meaning and has worth,” she says.

Gillan adds that the event’s importance lies in the fact that students return home, but will “always have that feeling of ‘I got up there, I read the poem.’ Everything we do gives us a little more courage and confidence in ourselves and what we can do."poetry-and-children

Equally important is the integral service that the University provides the community in creating events like this.

“We have a responsibility to the town … to try to use some of our resources to help the area and help the children in the area,” she says.

Crystal Reid, a special education teacher from Homer Brink Elementary School, brings students to the event from many different classes, usually ranging from third to fifth grades. “It is a fabulous event,” she says, one that she has attended for the last seven years.

The event “is a really valuable experience for students, especially for students in the younger grades to get the exposure that this event provides and then the experience of performing their work,” Reid says.

The students were equally eager to share their impressions of the event, particularly those attending with teacher Matt Jablonowski from All Saints Catholic School. For 12-year-old Grace Strojney, it made “a good birthday.” Other students added that they planned to continue writing, enthusiastically nodding their heads in between enjoying the cookies and juice that the University provided during the post-event celebration.

Jablonowski says that his classes attend the event every year and that it provides a wonderful opportunity to “listen to the work that other schools do” while also challenging his own students to “set their bar higher.”

Theresa Helstein talked about the impact that the event has had on her son, Joshua Coby, of Floyd L. Bell Elementary School in Windsor. Now in fifth grade, this was Coby’s fourth year at the event, having begun presenting his poetry in second grade. Describing her son as a “very unique kid” who “definitely thinks outside the box,” Poetry and the Children has provided the spark that set his world on fire, Helstein says. Before he began attending Poetry and the Children, Coby struggled with speech dyslexia. As a result of being around hundreds of people, however — both peers and adults — he has gained a great deal of self-confidence and now approaches public speaking with ease, says his mother.

Gillan says that Poetry and the Children allows students to “make and shape language to take the ‘inside’ you and put it on paper.”

“For anybody who’s shy or doesn’t have many opportunities to do that, the writing gives that opportunity,” she says. “And then to say it out loud adds another layer.”

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Last Updated: 12/11/12