Career teaching poetry reaps rewards for volunteer, students

Volunteer Earl Wilcox, left, and Sullivan Middle School students Helen Revell, middle, and Trey Brindle, both 12, earned national attention for their poetry.
Volunteer Earl Wilcox, left, and Sullivan Middle School students Helen Revell, middle, and Trey Brindle, both 12, earned national attention for their poetry.

For decades, Earl Wilcox taught students a language that can be expressed in no other way: poetry.

But he never wrote poetry.

During 30 years as a Winthrop University English professor, he became an internationally known expert on the American poet Robert Frost.

"I've always taught about other people's poetry," he explained.

Until he retired.

That's when he discovered two passions: volunteering at Sullivan Middle School, where his granddaughter attends, and actually writing poetry himself. Since then, he's had three dozen poems published online and in journals.

Last fall, Wilcox and Sullivan sixth-graders entered a contest designed to "celebrate and inspire career development." The topic was "One World, Many Cultures, Many Careers," and it was sponsored by the National Career Development Association. The entries could be either a poster or a poem.

Three Sullivan sixth-grade poets took first, second and third place at the district level in the middle school category. Wilcox won in the adult division. He went on to place third in the national competition this spring.

There's a movement throughout South Carolina schools to increase awareness of career opportunities in children at younger ages. Sullivan's career specialist, Stormy Clark, decided that the topic fit well into Sullivan's application to become an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme school.

"It just came along as an opportunity to promote career awareness and for the kids to use their talents and show we are an international society," Clark said.

So Clark, Wilcox and the sixth-graders joined forces.

Kaitlyn Alford, whose poem "In All Countries of the World" took first place in the district, wrote about people all over the world who are tied together through different careers.

Trey Brindle, who took second, penned "One World, Your World" in two syllables per line, six lines per stanza and four stanzas using poetic techniques of repetition and imagery.

"Poetry is something that expresses your feelings," he said. "Ever since I started writing, I knew I was expressing myself."

He plans to use his creativity and his love of math as an architect.

Helen Revell, who took third at the district level, wrote "This World, Your Job" exploring the vast career opportunities the world offers. She wants to play in the WNBA.

"I thought if you set your goal on basketball and you don't make it, you can be something else," she said. "I'd like to be a teacher."

She writes poems and stories and songs whenever she's bored. With poetry, she said, "You just let your thoughts flow."

As for Wilcox, he had already written a poem about teaching his granddaughter to cut grass. Then, he saw two Latino men doing yard work and created "Children Sing and Old Men Dream."

It's a poem that dwells inside the mind of an immigrant Mexican landscaper who has no other skills. But he dreams about his granddaughter becoming a lawyer some day.

Wilcox won a plaque and a Barnes & Noble gift certificate, and his winning entry can be found on the National Career Development Association Web site, www.ncda.org.

And there are other rewards. He's working with children and writing poetry.