Telling Room Young Writers
Poems by Ahmed Abbas, Fadumo Issack, Emma Jordan
Edited by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc
Illustrations by Eric Hou
The Telling Room Young Writers Contest
With the support of Maine magazine and Longfellow Books in Portland, the Telling Room received hundreds of submissions for its annual writing contest. Middle and high school students from as far away as Presque Isle wrote poems and stories about play—they recalled childhood games, they wrote about kids caught in the middle of adult games, and they played with words. All of the winning works demonstrate, in their own way, how childhood play and memories resonate more deeply as we grow older. For more information, visit tellingroom.org.
Star Gazing An excerpt from the winning poetry submission
My childhood in Iraq
is painful to think back on
because of its greatness.
I think back to the sand
that collected outside my house,
and how we used to bathe the ground in water,
the damp smell filling each room
as if the day was just starting,
The power switched off at night.
I slept on the top of my house.
The stars I saw
I kept in my head.
At least the stars
here are the same.
Climbing Barefoot An excerpt from the winning nonfiction submission
When a child is born she learns how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, and how to play. When I was growing up I learned all of these things too; but for me, there was something else just as important—I learned how to climb trees. It became a part of my body; the tree limbs, my limbs. I climbed trees every day.
When I climbed up tree branches I felt safe. I climbed as high as I could, and then I would sit down and look out over the only place I had ever known. Ifo, Dadaab, Kenya. Dadaab is the city; Ifo is the refugee camp in Kenya—the largest refugee camp in the world.
Never for a second did I blame the tree for what happened to me. I never thought, “Maybe if I hadn’t been in the tree, my life wouldn’t be like this.” My relatives thought this way. But for me, I never blamed the tree. It wasn’t the tree’s fault. It wasn’t Ifo’s fault, either.
I knew Ifo like a book you memorized, and when I looked down from the top of a tree, the camp looked like a good place. I saw kids playing. When I climbed back down, it was a mess, but up there, I felt like everything was okay.
* * *
I walked up to the tree, took off my sandals, and began to climb. Even though my mom told me always to wear sandals, I liked climbing barefoot. I liked being able to feel the tree on my feet and toes.
I sat down on the highest branch and looked at everybody. All of the kids couldn’t believe it. The boy who had dared me to climb the tree said that he didn’t think I was really a girl, because I didn’t seem to be afraid of anything.
He climbed and sat on the branch next to where I was sitting. He wanted me to be afraid of him and his family, because everyone else was. But I wasn’t.
He said to me, “Your mom must be proud of you for being so brave.” And then he pushed me out of the tree.
People as far away as A-4 block heard my screams. Later they said that I was a quiet girl and they had never heard me scream like that. My father heard me, too, and he ran to find me, lying on the ground. He carried me home.
* * *
The first day that I was strong enough to stand on my own and walk, I walked out of the bedroom, across my yard, and right to one of our trees. Even though I hadn’t climbed in months, my body remembered how. I put my bare foot on the tree, and reached my arm up to the closest branch, and my brain helped my body move in the way it knew so well. I climbed and moved as though nothing had ever happened to me, even though so much had. When I reached the top of the tree and looked out over Ifo again my eyes began to tear, but for the first time in so long, I cried with joy.
Bird’s Clues An excerpt from the winning story submission
A memory comes to me as I am waking, of opening my eyes on countless mornings to discover a note by my head. I would sit up and read the note. Then I’d run around the house, finding more notes. Each was a clue leading to the next, and at the end would be Bird herself, laughing when I discovered her. This was our game. It was almost as much of my life as she was.
Bird. My sister.
There’s a stain on my heart where she was.
Something is tugging at the corners of my mind with urgent hands until I can’t help but indulge it. It’s a poem; it seems familiar, but I don’t know where it came from. I realize what it is. It’s a note like Bird’s. A scavenger hunt. Yes, it’s her poem.
Hidden in a velvet cave,
Born from sand and smoothed by wave,
Start this game with games of past,
That you may find me at last.
I still have her clues. After she was gone, I made a blue velvet bag to hold them and a piece of beach glass. I take the bag out, but I realize I can’t remember what the clue is about. If it’s one of Bird’s, I should know.
Games of past…
The notes. Bird knew I kept them. But…
A velvet cave…
The bag. Bird couldn’t know about it,
because she was gone before it was made.
It’s not a note I have.
Born from sand…Smoothed by wave…
I overturn the bag. The blue glass falls. It’s the glass, the poem wants me to find, and when I touch it, the poem is gone. In its place is another.
On the surface you may see
Your own self, yet also me;
Capture you in all your graces,
Hung with others’ captured faces.
Others’ captured faces…
Photographs. A mirror. The mirror in Bird’s room. It’s on the back of her door, and stuck all around it are pictures. I walk down the hall. The door swings open, and I am hit with pain. The walls are yellow, cheerful like Bird. I turn to the closed door and see her.
It isn’t her. It’s me, reflected.
On the surface you may see your own self,
yet also me…
Your own self. My self, and also Bird. Just
like that, I know. She is waiting for me.
My fingers touch the mirror.
* * *
The next one drifts in.
Sun and rain and smiles and tears,
Minutes, days and weeks and years,
Limbs and leaves above us swell,
Find me here, my Isobel.
It’s the last clue. I know it with a certainty that fills my heart. I’m stepping slowly into the hallway, down the stairs.
Limbs and leaves above us swell…
Our tree. It was so much of our lives,
second only to our game.
A warmth that lulled us in the branches.
The sound of heavy drops on leaves.
Her grin as she chased me higher.
Clumsy tumbles from limbs.
Minutes, days and weeks and years…
I open the back door. It’s pouring. My feet
are soaked as I cross the yard.
Find me here, my Isobel….
I’m standing under the tree. My hair drips
down my back. She’s feet from me. Blinks
“Isobel.” She smiles.