WASHINGTON, D.C. - Diego Javier Steele, a senior at Sentinel High School, was in the nation's capital this week to compete in Poetry Out Loud. But before he went onstage to represent Montana in the national poetry recitation contest - successfully making it to the final round - he found time to do the following:
Tour the National Mall at night, catch a show at a comedy club, shop at the historic Eastern Market (where he bought a cool shirt to wear in the finals), visit the Folger Shakespeare Library, get a tattoo (his parents won't mind), play Ultimate Frisbee at the Smithsonian and attend the national Earth Day concert.
The only problem was, he didn't get to stay until the end and hear John Legend or Sting.
"I had to go, because I had to go to the poetry thing," he said.
In short, the 18-year-old from Lolo had a very good time. He loved D.C. And then there was "that poetry thing."
Last month in Helena, Diego won the state Poetry Out Loud competition that earned him and a chaperone a free trip to the nationals in Washington.
"It wasn't a walk-away, but he was clearly the winner," said Margaret Belisle, a Helena High School English teacher who coordinates the program.
She estimates that 4,000 Montana high school students from 60 high schools participated in Poetry Out Loud this year. Not every school held a formal contest, but across the state, teachers asked students to choose a poem, memorize it, and recite it before their classmates.
"It grows a little more each year," Belisle said.
At Sentinel High School, Diego was coached by his librarian, Jillian Crerar. She was unable to make the trip, however, so his drama teacher, Katie Geoghegan, came to Washington instead.
On Monday, all 53 students (one from each state plus the District of Colombia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) recited two poems. It was 5 p.m. before Diego and 16 other students from Western states took the microphone at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.
The judges were so impressed with his dramatic delivery that they chose him as one of three from the West to compete in Tuesday evening's final round. Students from South Dakota and Nevada also advanced.
Since 2006, Poetry Out Loud has been jointly organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. Each state arts council receives a grant to distribute the curriculum materials and run regional and statewide contests. The trip to Washington gives state coordinators a chance to network with each other and meet with their congressmen to show that taxpayer money is well spent on Poetry Out Loud.
Tuesday afternoon, after a lavish Capitol Hill luncheon, Diego had a chance to meet U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who took a break from debating financial regulations to hear Diego recite Carl Sandburg's "I Am the People, the Mob." And then they talked politics.
"I interrogated him," Diego said.
Belisle laughed and countered, "Diego was very professional. He asked him about issues affecting Montana." A staffer in Tester's office even offered him an internship.
Then it was back to the hotel to prepare for the finals. Competitors returned to the auditorium early for dinner and media interviews. Backstage in the Green Room, a cameraman from the BBC filmed the nine finalists who stood in a circle, chanting and clapping like they were holding a pep rally for the poetry Super Bowl. Which in a way, they were.
"Everyone is so cool," Diego said. "It's a very diverse group. There are people from all over the country. And we're all just a little bit off, you know?"
Teachers would prefer to say that Poetry Out Loud tends to attract students who don't excel at sports or ace the math SATs. It's a program that gives drama club geeks and bookworms a chance to shine. Some are shy, while others, like Diego, are natural performers. In addition to the Sandburg poem, he chose to recite Maurice Kilwein Guevara's humorous poem, "Doña Josefina Counsels Doña Concepcion Before Entering Sears."
After he finished both poems, Poetry Out Loud host, actor and comedian John Leguizamo called Diego over for an impromptu interview.
"So, how did you prepare for tonight's event?" Leguizamo asked Diego.
"I took a shower," he responded, without missing a beat. The crowd of several hundred parents, teachers and spectators laughed, perhaps expecting to hear something about reading the complete Shakespeare sonnets.
Judges at the final included Garrison Keillor, host of the public radio program "A Prairie Home Companion," and Oscar-nominated actress Alfre Woodard. While the scores were tallied, the nine finalists accepted medals from Rocco Landesman, NEA chairman, and John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation. Standing between the two men in formal suits, Diego leaned forward, grinned, and bit his medal just as the camera flash went off.
"Folks, there is always a comedian among them," Leguizamo said.
So Diego was unofficially crowned America's funniest teenage poetry reciter. But he was not among the top three. When the results were tallied, Amber Rose Johnson of Rhode Island was named the national Poetry Out Loud champion. Students from South Dakota and Maryland were the runners-up.
Afterwards, Diego wasn't disappointed. "I did what I came here to do," he said. "I finished in the top nine." He'll take home a $1,000 scholarship and a $500 check for Crerar to spend on poetry books for the Sentinel High School library. And then there's his tattoo.
"Do you see that star?" he said, rolling up his cargo pants and pointing to the small red and blue symbol on his left ankle. "I can always look down and remember this trip."
Rebecca Ritzel is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who contributes occasional stories to the Missoulian.