Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District teachers, a principal and the superintendent came to Raynham Hall Museum’s Education Center on Feb. 13 to celebrate 10 young poets. The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade winners of the museum’s annual Valentine’s Day Poetry Contest, which included students from East Norwich’s James H. Vernon School, read their entries to a room filled with family members, friends and poetry lovers.
“The Vernon teachers and principal have come to support the children and to empower them to write poetry,” said the sixth-grade judge, Jessica Bader, the district’s director of humanities. “We need more poetry. It’s an avenue for self-reflection and creativity.”
And as some of the poems indicated, it can be an outlet to share hopes for the future or to express love or pain.
As the sixth-grade winner, Joel Redondo, a student at Vernon, read his poem, “Mamá,” in Spanish, people in the audience wiped away tears. The poem, an expression of love and longing, was written for Joel’s mother, who lives in Honduras and whom he hasn’t seen in three years.
The contest gave students like Joel a chance to express themselves, but it was also a way to encourage children to write.
Harper Wilson, a fourth-grader at Vernon, took third place for her poem “Love.” Writing serves several purposes, she said. “It really expresses me and helps me calm down,” Harper said. “I write about things that happen to me.”
This was the first time she had won an award for her writing, she added, which has made her want to write more poetry.
The museum, which has been hosting the poetry contest since 2018, is where historians believe the first valentine was shared over 240 years ago. The hamlet was occupied by the British in 1779, with officers, including Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, living in the home of the Townsend family, which is now the museum.
Simcoe was smitten by Sarah Townsend, the sister of Robert, who was a spy for George Washington during the Revolutionary War. To show his affection, historians say, Simcoe presented Sarah with the first valentine on Feb. 14, 1779. There is no historical record of any further association between them, but it must have meant something to Sarah, who never married. The valentine was found with her possessions when she died in 1842.
After congratulating the contest winners, Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino marveled at where the event was taking place — a place of such historical significance — and shared his thoughts on the importances of writing poetry.
“Writing about love is important,” Saladino said. “It’s important to embrace each other, love each other. The future looks bright with so many creative and talented students.”
Oyster Bay-East Norwich District Superintendent Francesco Ianni said he was pleased that the students were able to express themselves outside the classroom. “Some poems were really touching,” he said. “When we asked the students to write poems, we asked that they look deep into themselves. Poetry is an art that allows them to give a voice to their heart. It’s something we should do more often.”
Harriet Gerard Clark, Raynham’s executive director, said the poetry provided an outlet for expression, which is needed. “We love history,” she said. “And we love love. So it’s important to have this this year, when everything is up in the air. And it’s good to have the kids, public servants and teachers together.”