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CLEVELAND ELEMENTARY SCHOOL fifth-grader Basheer Dalil (above), originally from Sudan, delivers a speech he wrote called Americans and Sudanese for the Oratorical Fest in Oakland on Wednesday.
OAKLAND - MARJANI COOPER spent weeks memorizing "I am not an accident," a poem by Doris Collier. She practiced her posture, pace and pitch so she could stand in front of her entire school and recite it by heart for an event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Then, as her moment in the spotlight arrived, she panicked.

"I started to cry," said Marjani, 11. "I didn't remember my poem, and I didn't want to get on the stage."

Somehow, the Cleveland Elementary School fifth-grader summoned the courage to follow through. She stepped up to the microphone, cast aside a printed copy of the poem and recited from memory.

Marjani won the competition.

"Dr. King did a whole lot for the country, and if he just sat there doing nothing, like I started to do, I wouldn't be sitting here right now," Marjani, who is African-American, said after the performance. "So that's one reason I got up here on the stage."

Marjani's public speaking experience — the preparation, the fear, and overcoming that fear — is an important part of a child's education, said Mia Settles, principal of Cleveland Elementary School.

"You're going to have to speak in front of an audience if you're going to be a principal, or if you're going to be the president," Settles said.

Cleveland, an ethnically diverse school near Lake Merritt, has historically been a "quiet" place "led by adults," Settles said. With encouragement from staff, she said, some of her young pupils are beginning to assert themselves in positive ways.

Cleveland formed a student council last year. Children began to patrol the hallways, advising one another to be safe and respectful of others. Then, under the guidance of Antoinette Cooper, a second-year physical education teacher and poet, some of the children tried their hand at public speaking.

To prepare for the event, the speakers met with Cooper at lunchtime. They learned about the meaning behind the poems and speeches they had memorized. Then they practiced — and practiced some more.

"I said, 'When you're walking, just say the piece to yourself, even if people think you're crazy. I just needed them to see that they could, with their words, create change," Cooper said.

Some of the performers were shy, the types who rarely spoke in class. Others were regular visitors to the principal's office. In fact, the two girls who teamed up to read Maya Angelou's "Alone" got in trouble for antagonizing each other in the yard. As a consequence, they became reading partners for the festival. Now, Settles said, they no longer see each other as enemies.

Daryllane Quinones-Barker, another reader, said she felt "kind of shy, nervous and really, really happy" onstage. She read a Langston Hughes piece, "Mother to Son."

Something about his words made sense to her. The poem began: "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up ..."

Daryllane said it was her first time standing before a large group. She'd never thought she'd do anything like it, she said. She can't wait to do it again.

The winners from Cleveland and other schools will advance to the Oakland school district's regional competition Feb. 7, 8 and 15 at Allen Temple, 8501 International Blvd., Oakland.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.