I am sitting in a church hall with over 100 audience members.
A little girl’s name is called out. She gets up from her chair near the back, walks purposefully down the side aisle, and climbs the stairs to the stage. She walks across the empty stage and stands alone for a moment looking out at the gathering. When everything is quiet she says, “‘Paris on Fire’ by Sophianna A. Koopmans.” Her voice is not loud but, all the way to the back of the hall it is clear and her words hold the audience’s attention for the duration of her short poem.
This is the honours performance of the Speech Arts Festival. This small eight-year-old girl has been invited to recite again a poem she wrote for the Festival and presented a week ago.
Her mentor in speech arts assures me she wrote the poem herself without prompting or correcting from any adult.
Here, with her permission, is the poem she wrote and recited before the assembly of parents, grandparents, family friends, and other performers:
By Sophianna A. Koopmans
Once, long ago,
when the Eiffel Tower was up in flames,
I saw, or thought I saw,
drifting with the smoke
as it spread from building to building.
The scent filled my nostrils.
The fire rose higher and higher
Like the king of the mountains.
I did not know
what this feeling was;
It was like happiness and amazement mixed.
I will never forget it.
Asked by the adjudicator after her first performance to explain the origins of this poem, Sophianna replied, “My Daddy and my Grandpa were watching a movie called ‘Is Paris Burning?’ When I heard the title of the movie I thought about the Eiffel Tower early in the morning with the sun shining on it and it gave me a feeling.”
The recitation feels wistful. The little voice is deadly serious, tinged with a sense of wonder. Where does this tender seriousness come from in a small eight-year-old?
How will these deep waters find their way through her life?
The world is not always kind to those who have visions of towers on fire and hear songs, “drifting with the smoke.” There will be times when this gentle heart will not be well received in a world often more comfortable with the performer who goes for the laugh or offers the momentary escapism of light entertainment.
As my protective heart beats with a small ache for this vulnerable sweet child who shares herself so openly, I am reminded of another poet who looked up a mountain and found there a source of strength and security.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore. (Psalm 121:1-8)
As she ends her poem, I feel confident that the honesty, openness, and strength at the heart of “Paris on Fire” will carry the young poet into a future in which, like the Psalmist, she continues to catch a glimpse of “the king of the mountains.”
Wherever her journey may lead, this vision of the king will sustain and strengthen her. No matter how she is received by a world that does not deal easily with vulnerability, she will carry a steady awareness at the centre of her being that all of life is held by goodness and light. She will be well.