Captivating the Wayne High School student body isn't an easy task, but one morning this spring, junior Aliyah Armstrong hushed about 1,000 of her peers with a performance that earned her a state championship.
The 17-year-old combined poetry about street violence, incorporating the writings of others, with personal tragedy. Her brother Darius Marcel Boone, 14, died from a gunshot to his head just days before her birthday last spring.
The Allen County coroner ruled his death a homicide, the 15th of 45 in 2018. Fort Wayne police said Devon Weaver, then 14, was handling a handgun at a Chestnut Street home when it went off. Weaver was charged as a juvenile with criminal recklessness; the status of his case is not publicly available.
Armstrong, who has an 11-year-old brother, said she is tired of the violence.
She recognizes many adolescent boys want to fit in but hopes they get the message carrying a gun isn't worth it – that it doesn't make them tough, she said.
Tackling this emotional subject for Wayne's speech team was initially difficult, said Armstrong, a member for three years. The seven-minute performance became easier over time, however.
Eventually, she gave multiple presentations in a day. Her championship win in poetry at the Indiana High School Forensics Association State Speech Tournament required about a half dozen performances in one day, said Felisa Cockrell, her coach.
“It drains me,” Cockrell said.
In this context, forensics refers to competitive speech, debate and public speaking. The purpose of the state association is to improve speech education through speech-related activities.
Armstrong's win was the first state championship for the team, which is in its fourth year.
“The students do find their voice,” Cockrell said. “She's an example of that.”
Although many students have experience with tragedy, they often don't have the platform to express themselves, Cockrell said. By watching Armstrong, she added, teens could witness someone channeling that emotion into something positive and meaningful.
“Talking about it can be healing,” Cockrell said.
In her piece, Armstrong talks about losing her brother and recites from poems “I Know You Didn't Mean To Kill Him” by Jasmine Mans and “How the Hood Loves You Back” by Steven Willis.
“I usually do this to try to inspire other young kids to get involved in other things other than what he was involved in to lead to what happened,” Armstrong said to one audience, noting she dedicates the performance to her slain brother and other young black men.
Her message addresses the complexity of “the hood,” as she refers to it: the gun violence, the rest-in-peace shirts honoring those killed and the community's unwillingness to snitch on the shooters, Principal John Houser said.
“I think her performance at some point makes reference that the hood always welcomes you back – even if you have killed one of its children,” he said. “She's trying to make sense of all that.”
Houser initiated Armstrong's schoolwide performance, she said. Initially uncomfortable about it, Armstrong said she was proud of herself for doing so.
“The place was silent,” Cockrell said.
Classmates shared similar experiences with Armstrong afterward, the teen said, noting one girl lost two brothers when she was 9.
“I feel like I can be that voice for the hood,” Armstrong said.