CAMDEN, NJ — The white-walled performance room at Forest Hill Elementary was noticeably fervent Friday afternoon.

Teachers milled about patiently getting everything into place. Students spoke among themselves. John Legend’s “Glory” blared from speakers. 

But when first-grader Destiny picked up the microphone and began to read the 1975 poem, “Hey, Black Child,” the room of more than one hundred fell silent as her dulcet voice recited Countee Cullen’s poignant words.

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“That was my favorite part,” second-grader Rahsaan Hornsby, 7, said after the elementary school’s 2nd Annual “Oratorical Fest.”

The theme for this year's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration was “The Dream — What Are You Doing For Others?”

“I wanted to move beyond [King] having a dream, and focus on how do we make that real?” said Forest Hill Elementary Principal Fatihah Abdur-Rahman. “One of the questions he asked the children and asked us as people was, ‘What are you doing for others?’ I want them to have the idea of ‘service’ and teach them that they're there not just in Camden, but they're here to be a part of Camden and make a difference.”

Approximately 360 students participated in the festival, which began Thursday, with performances from students between Kindergarten and 2nd grade. Abdur-Rahman delighted in the knowledge that nearly a mile from her school and today's revelry stood a house with links to the civil rights leader himself.

Kalab Wright, second-grader and also 7, said, “I liked the drum part the best. I have my own set at home.”

The show included a drum performance, beatboxing, and poetry readings — intermingled with footage of King saying some of his most famous words. Emblazoned across the young student's faces, via projector, were some of King’s quotes and students brought poster boards decorated with the civil rights leader.

A group of third-graders shared in a reading of “The Crayon Box that Talked” by Shane Derolf, which celebrates diversity.

Second-graders closed the show with a performance of “I Can See Clearly Now” mimicking components of the song while hand-in-hand.

Abdur-Rahman, who has been the principal at Forest Hill Elementary for the past two years, said she hopes to ultimately make the show a contest.

“We're not there yet,” she said. “We’re still learning how to have stage presence, and be comfortable speaking in front of others. The main thing is to encourage the children to put to memory the values they can carry into their lives.”

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