Freshman poet, ‘talented beyond her years,’ honored

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Westbrook High School freshman Zainab Almatwari was this year's recipient of the Telling Room's founders prize for her poem "The Transform Plate Between L.A. and Sacramento," which has been published in the writing organization's annual anthology.

WESTBROOK — People who know Zainab Almatwari agree on one thing – she’s going to change the world.

This is the consensus among the teachers, administrators and nonprofit leaders who have worked with the Westbrook High School freshman over the past year. Since moving to the U.S. from Iraq in March 2016, the 14-year-old has made quite an impression.

“There’s something really sparkly about her,” said Kelly Fernald, an English as a second language teacher at the high school. “She’s absolutely tenacious.”

Almatwari has also captured the attention of the Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center in Portland. She was this year’s recipient of the organization’s founders prize.

“I was jumping and yelling,” she said. “It was really a surprise.”

Almatwari was notified of her win in May one week before the Telling Room’s annual Big Night event, where she was presented with the award and $500. She was one of 12 students nominated by the organization and was then selected as the winner by the three founders of the Telling Room. 

Each student was judged based on one piece of writing, and for Almatwari it was her poem “The Transform Plate Between L.A. and Sacramento.” She wrote the piece at the Telling Room at a week-long writing camp during February vacation. It has since been published in the organization’s annual anthology, “Sparks.”

According to Sonya Tomlinson, the Telling Room’s multilingual programs director, Almatwari is one of the youngest winners of the founders prize. She described the young writer as “diligent” and “incredibly prolific,” and said she won because of her unique writing style.

“She really thinks outside the box,” Tomlinson said. “She has a way of finding words and crafting a piece in an unlikely format. She is just talented beyond her years.”

Almatwari’s poem, which is written in eight stanzas each with their own title, is about her journey from Iraq to the U.S. and how it transformed her as a person. She said she’s grateful the Telling Room has given her the space to share her story.

“I like how the (Telling Room) teachers treat us like friends and they give us the opportunity to share our stories and have a voice,” she said. “It’s really changed my life 100 percent when I started writing poems and sharing them with other people.”

Almatwari got involved with the Telling Room only a few months after moving to Maine when the organization was doing short programs at Westbrook High School. Now, because of the city’s growing new Mainer population, the organization is getting more deeply involved.

Tomlinson said the Telling Room will be expanding its programs for Westbrook students in the next school year and will open its annual Young Writers and Leaders program to WHS students. The program, which currently serves Portland and South Portland students, is a year-long program that works with immigrant students to write and publish their personal narratives. 

The program, which has a competitive application process, will be able to serve 45 students across the three cities next year. WHS Principal Kelli Deveaux said she’s happy students will have this chance.

“I am incredibly excited by the opportunity to partner with the Telling Room,” she said. “Their emphasis on helping kids find and share their voices is incredibly important.”

Fernald agreed and said ESL students need a platform to express themselves.

“When I got here I saw all these students carrying around these stories and in the day-to-day you don’t hear them all,” she said. “The Telling Room helps bring those out.”

After the February vacation camp, Almatwari and several other students read their stories to the entire WHS student body at an assembly. Tomlinson said this is the first time Telling Room students have presented to their peers.

Fernald said ESL students are always looking for public speaking opportunities because it helps them practice their English. Almatwari said it has helped with her language skills, as well as with her confidence.

“It’s so important because a year ago I used to be much more sensitive,” Almatwari said. “I’d cry when I’d read something emotional. Now when I read my poetry I feel more comfortable.”

Fernald said sharing stories also helps bring people together and understand each other better.

“The more we understand each other’s personal stories, the more we feel a part of the same community,” she said. “What’s the same about us is so much more than what’s different about us.”

Almatwari, who plans to continue participating in Telling Room programs, wants to keep sharing her stories with others. She dreams of one day writing a book and possibly opening a publishing center. She said it’s important that people know the value of their experiences and stories.

“Everyone has something to share and you never know who could benefit from it, so everyone should share,” Almatwari said. “Everyone has stories.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Westbrook High School freshman Zainab Almatwari was this year’s recipient of the Telling Room’s founders prize for her poem “The Transform Plate Between L.A. and Sacramento,” which has been published in the writing organization’s annual anthology.

The Transform Plate Between LA and Sacramento

By Zainab Almatwari

1. The Transform Plate

Mrs. Fernald taught us in our Earth Science class

That there are three different kinds of plate tectonics

The transform plate, or the transform fault, is one of the three

That plate is between LA and Sacramento

Where two lands move apart

And the result is a new land

That is what happened to me

2. A Rock and a Hammer

The big rock that was in my way between Iraq and the U.S.

Was my grandma

The hardest thing was leaving her behind

She was the rock

But she was also the hammer

She said: “I trust you. You can do it. Just go.”

3. A Small Fox

I used to be a small fox

I always had that sneaky part of me

That sneaks into the serious one

That part that told me to leave my goals

And do whatever I like to do

But after a while I realized

That building a better life

Does not happen by doing whatever I like to do

But by everything I want to do

I can do it like a lion

Be brave

Independent

And go right for what I want

4. Maps

I expect from myself to draw the roads that I want to walk on

All the cars, even the O2 that I breathe

I expect from myself to see, hear, touch, feel, and smell

I feel the reflection of myself as I can touch it

My new self gave me the pen to draw a street

That connects London, LA, Tokyo, and New York

In my fox self I thought those cities weren’t mine

I thought each city was for its people only

My fox self was like a city in Antarctica

No name, no people, no feelings

5. Expectations

My parents pictured me as the recycling of their hopes

But with the goals of a mind independent and trusted

They saw me as the finder not the searcher of their lost moments

But I expect from myself more than people do

High dreams but I believe and I know

That I am going to reach the top

Even if I am short

6. The Transformation

I left the small fox in my backpack

She was the dictionary of my life

She was my Google Translate and my bad words

She was the hand that touched me through the continents

7. Altitude 39,000 Feet

I came with a heavy mind

Full of dreams

Goals and thoughts

Literally I thought about the Latin numbers

The Greek government

The top of a triangle

The pictures of the tracks

The scary swarms of bees

I tried not to think about anything

While I was thinking about everything

Everything was pretty important for me

8. The Lion

I love my lion self

Even if I close my eyes and walk in the main street

Even if I say no while everyone says yes

Even if I tell my sister: “Don’t talk to me for ten minutes!”

But I come back and give her my favorite highlighter

I love myself

I love me as a lion

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