Gabriella Burwell, a junior at Knightdale High School, was one of nine finalists to compete for the Poetry Out Loud 2022 national title—as well as a $20,000 prize and $500 for their school for the purchase of poetry materials. The competition was held on Sunday, June 5. 

What started as an in-class assignment, Burwell says, took her on an unexpected journey.

“I didn’t see myself being here, really,” Burwell says. “Every step of the way surprised me. When I won for the county, I was surprised; when I won for North Carolina, I was surprised.”

Poetry Out Loud is a national arts education program where students study and recite poems of their choice from over 1,100 in the Poetry Out Loud anthology, starting in the classroom before moving onto regional, state, and national final competitions. Judges score the recitations on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, overall performance, and accuracy.

Burwell vyed for the title alongside students from states all across the country, including Arizona, Colorado, New York, and California. 

For her recitations, Burwell selected “Black Matters” by Keith S. Wilson and “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, as well as a poem by Booker T. Washington for her pre-20th century requirement. Burwell says her theater teacher helped her find poems that she connected with.

“Being a black young woman, history is just something that I can’t really escape from,” Burwell says. “So I think he found poems that were about my culture and who I was as a person and what I could relate to.”

Through this process, Burwell says the main thing she’s learned is to be kinder to herself.

“I’ve learned to trust myself and others because I’ve gotten myself this far with the help of others,” Burwell says. “I think just being grateful to myself is a big thing that I have learned and I’m still working on.”

“Ultimately, she didn’t make it to the top three—Mia Ronn, a junior from the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, California, secured the championship title—but Burwell tells the INDY Week that she is grateful for the experience and plans to keep dreaming big.”

“I am super excited for my senior year of high school,” Burwell says. “I plan on running for student body president and continuing my growth in the arts.”

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