Asked to write a speech about a lack of academic achievement among African-American children, Faith Chennault Woodard presented a sobering assessment that likened school to the life-taking games of gladiators.
"Instead of an institution of learning, school has become like an ancient Roman arena where only the strong survive," Faith said. "A place where students wear rebellion and violence as a badge of honor in establishing respect as a thug."
Hyperbole? Perhaps, but Faith used her words to describe the trend of education being devalued and smart kids being teased.
The 14-year-old eighth-grader at Rogers Middle School in Riverview presented her thoughts at the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs' annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast Monday.
The winner of the group's youth oratorical contest, Faith got a standing ovation for dissecting the problem. She quoted Robert F. Kennedy, Aristotle and Maya Angelou in explaining the contrasts between what she called today's misguided attitudes and yesterday's wholesome perspectives.
She faulted "rebellion" for the destructive attitudes and cited today's pop culture as a contributing factor.
"With the advancement of technology, hip-hop, rap music and TV have paved the way for the African-American youth to pick up thuggery as a way of life," Faith said. "Rebellion is idolized, crime is glorified and education is criticized."
She concluded by challenging parents to restore morality and faith in the home, and said the best lessons come from the "riches of our past."
"Long ago, Rosa Parks sat so that one man, Martin Luther King Jr., could walk," Faith said. "Martin Luther King walked so that in 2008, Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that today, we can now fly. It's time to realize that change has come to America. ...
"It's time to realize that increasing academics begins inside. Change begins with you."
The audience of more than 800 roared with approval.
If the girl sounded more like a Baptist minister and less like a child who stars in basketball and track and is on the student council, there's a reason. She's the daughter of Lora and Sterlin Woodard, who is a minister at Greater Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Tampa.
She also has an apparent genetic advantage. Last year, her cousin Ashley Favors won the oratorical contest.