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A Standing Oration


A Standing Oration

April 28, 2006
EducationPre K-12

Today, audiences around the country will line up to watch "Akeelah and the Bee." The new film, starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, hinges on the apparent novelty of a young African-American girl from the south side of Los Angeles entering an academic contest—the National Spelling Bee—and finding mentors to help her along the way. There may be something sadly unusual about this story—but one need not go to the movies to find such inspirational tales.

Just drop by the Sampson G. Smith School in Somerset, N.J., next Saturday. An organization called The New Jersey Orators will be holding the first of its two annual statewide competitions for some 400 black elementary and high-school students from 14 local chapters. These kids have taken on an after-school academic challenge at least as great as that of a spelling bee: old-fashioned public speaking in well-pronounced standard English.

The "Orators" was established in 1985 by five black professionals—all employees of Johnson & Johnson or AT&T—who were concerned about the poor interviewing skills they saw among young black job candidates. The five call themselves "traditionalists" and say that they have no use for either ebonics or gangsta rap. "To be successful, you must be well-spoken," says founder and board member Eloise Samuels, who also reminds students that more is at stake than the impression they leave as individuals: "You are representing your race when you speak." Her co-founder Lanetta Lyons, who coaches kids from a New Brunswick, N.J., public housing project once a week, warns her charges: "Without subject-verb agreement, what you say will be discounted."

The New Jersey Orators program teaches children as young as seven how to recite great speeches and poetry—from Martin Luther King Jr. (they're encouraged to learn something less familiar than "I Have a Dream") to Edgar Allen Poe, from Maya Angelou to Shakespeare. Some students choose to write their own oration. A school year's worth of practice culminates at the competitions, where contestants are judged on enunciation, inflection and understanding of the text. Appearances are also important. White shirts and dark slacks or skirts are required. Just as at a spelling bee—and, for that matter, a job interview—formalities count: The judges will take off points from those who fail to start with the title of their speech and the name of their Orators chapter.

All the adults involved in the program know that they're battling cultural forces that discourage academic achievement. Some have told me that they dream of having Bill Cosby, who has been drawing attention to this problem for a number of years, as a guest speaker. "We're helping our youth to overcome peer pressure," observes James Hunter, another co-founder, who is now an administrator in the Essex County prosecutor's office. Having seen many local youngsters who have gone down the wrong path, Mr. Hunter thinks that it is "crazy that education would not be looked on favorably by some people. But that's how it is."

Jazzmine Smith, a senior in the Newark Orators chapter who is bound for Drew University this fall, says that the social pressure in her neighborhood pushes kids "to stand on the corner, not do your homework and to do a lot of things worse than that." "At the Orators," Miss Smith observes, "getting good grades is the norm." The group has provided what Mr. Hunter calls "a safe place for kids to be smart" to more than 5,000 student over the course of 21 years.

Orators are attending top schools, including Princeton and Berkeley, but its founders are especially proud of kids who might never have graduated high school had they not joined the program. Many of them say the Orators have played a key role in their success.

Miss Smith, who has wowed audiences with declamations including an Adam Clayton Powell sermon and a Shylock speech from "The Merchant of Venice," credits the coaches with "introducing me to things I'd never been exposed to." Her favorite moments have come not at competitions, though, but when the Orators have performed at different corporate offices: "I hear people say, 'She's from Newark but she's got perfect diction.' It's a great feeling, showing people I'm not who they might think I am."

Thanks to a large network of volunteers, the Orators program can achieve such results with an annual budget of just $200,000—much of which goes for savings-bond prizes: $100 for platinum medal winners, $50 for gold. There is only one paid staff member, and he works part-time. Lawyers, teachers, engineers and other professionals serve as judges and timers for the competitions. Several black fraternities and sororities have adopted Orators chapters, coaching and even paying students' $50 annual fee. As with so many activities geared toward helping black youth, the bedrock of the Orators is the church: The group was initially housed in the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Garden, N.J., and eight of the chapters now meet in churches.

The Orators' ranks include not only the most disadvantaged youth. Well aware of the siren song of rap culture even for middle-class kids, suburban parents enroll their children, too. The crowd at the Smith School next week will be a soccer mom (and dad) group. They will all join in singing James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (once known as the Negro National Anthem) before the competition begins. It is, says Mr. Hunter, "a feeling of pure joy to see kids receive a medal, to see the accomplishment in their eyes, the pride when a parent looks up at that stage." It's a happy ending worthy of Hollywood.