GENEVA — Peace was the main topic of conversation around DeSales High School the evening of May 19, but the atmosphere inside the building was not necessarily calm and tranquil. As the evening began, 23 elementary and middle-school students inside DeSales were rather anxious, as they were about to compete in the school’s annual Oratorical Contest.
Each year students in the fifth through eighth grades at the Catholic schools in Geneva, Canandaigua, Penn Yan and Newark prepare brief speeches about an assigned topic and present them in front of their classmates. Two winners are chosen from each grade, and these students then go on to represent their schools in the competition at DeSales.
There the students compete against other students from the same grade level and give their speeches before a panel of three judges. The judges evaluate the students’ ideas, supporting materials, organization, language, poise, voice and articulation, and the winner of the eighth-grade contest receives a $1,000 scholarship to DeSales.
This year Rachel Ficcaglia, of St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva, won the scholarship with a speech related to this year’s theme, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be known as children of God." Although all 23 competitors wrote speeches based on the same theme, each student approached the beatitude in a different way.
"This statement symbolizes different things for different people," explained fifth-grader Katie Stack of St. Francis-St. Stephen School. "To me it means that those that follow in Jesus’ footsteps are always peacemakers.
Megan Korpiel, meanwhile, said she believes the beatitude calls all children to become as close to God as they possibly can.
"I think that just praying could get you one step closer to him. I believe that God gives everyone a chance to be a peacemaker, you just have to try and really reach for God," said Megan, a fifth-grader at St. Mary School in Canandaigua.
"This beatitude is very inspiring because it helps me understand how to be a child of God," noted sixth-grader Chloe Shortz, also of St. Mary School.
In her speech, Chloe talked about Julia Ward Howe, who penned "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and worked for peace, equality and freedom in both America and Russia.
"I wish to be like her, and I better get going, because I’ve got big shoes to fill," Chloe said.
Many students discussed the merits and examples of such well-known figures as Mahatma Ghandi, Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr.
"As soon as I hear that beatitude I immediately think of Dr. Martin Luther King. Some people would say he walked the walk and he talked the talk," said sixth-grader Erin Guinan of St. Francis-St. Stephen School. "I believe he is a great example of peace for men, women and even children today."
Sixth-grader Addie Fischer of St. Michael School in Newark talked about King, Ghandi and Mother Teresa in her presentation.
"They all had a great sense of determination and they can all be called children of God," Addie said.
Fifth-grader Riley Marsh from St. Michael School in Penn Yan said he admires such well-known peacemakers as Nelson Mandela, but people don’t have to be famous in order to bring about peace. Riley said he views his younger cousin as a peacemaker because she doesn’t like it when people in her family at school fight and she always encourages them to make up and be friends.
Sixth-grader Henry John from St. Francis-St. Stephen School broke down the word "peace" and talked a little bit about its various elements.
"P is for our priests, who lead us in Mass and teach us about the true peacemaker, Jesus Christ. P is for penance. In penance, we cleanse our bodies of sin, making room for the love that peace brings," said Henry, who won first place in the sixth-grade competition.
Henry said the letter "e" reminds him to open his ears and trust God, listen to his elders and their valuable real-life experiences, and remember that there is no exception and everyone should be working for peace.
"C is for courage, to step up and take action for what we know is right," Henry said. "C is for contagious, because once it starts, peace fever is bound to spread."