One at a time, the poets stepped to the microphone and delivered their angst-ridden tales of life.
A seventh-grader with floppy hair related the anger she feels inside: like a shaken bottle of Coke ready to explode.
A self-proclaimed class nerd railed about the "thousand children bound to be ... the psychopaths of tomorrow."
Another student rapped about love being "like a potion of drugs."
This was Thomas Starr King Middle School's spring Poetry Slam, an opportunity on Wednesday for 50 bards with pimples and braces to express their feelings.
In the school auditorium, a place seldom associated with intimacy, the young poets put a voice to the pain and loneliness of being 12 and 13.
The crowd of teachers and fellow students soaked up every word as the young poets nervously recited their verse.
"I'm hearing the kids being real with their world. I think it's pretty cool," said English teacher Steve Abee, who organized the poetry contest, which featured Borders bookstore gift certificates for the winners.
"They're really in touch with life. Even in the dark poems, there's a desire for love."
Abee -- a published poet and novelist, and the Poetry Slam's emcee -- organized the event with the Silver Lake school's librarian for the first time last year to give students an artistic and emotional outlet. Abee also runs a writers' club on campus.
To join the Poetry Slam, students had to sign up and show up -- no small feat for the middle schoolers. The 50 who did took seats on the auditorium stage. It took two class periods to get through the group.
Then the 50 were reduced to a final round of 11, who competed for first, second and third places.
Some poets covered familiar adolescent ground -- love, heartache, longing. But many showed a darker, more sophisticated side, exploring themes of war, identity, alienation and suicide.
In her poem "Dear ?" Laura Harwood told the audience that she bottles up her feelings and wants to be left alone when she's upset. She ended her poem by saying: "Well, lemme give you my line: Life sucks; let's throw rocks at it."
Poet Ginny Law looked outward in her poem, "Being Asian-American," which she said was inspired by a friend. She read:
I am Asian-American.
I wonder what life is really like in America ...
I pretend to be American ...
I touch the American life but never living it ...
I am the daughter of an immigrant.
I understand what it is like to be an outcast ...
I dream about my Chinese life.
I try to be my Asian self.
I hope to be American enough.
I am an Asian-American.
Law's poem drew wild applause from the audience and impressive scores from the judges (four teachers and a student). But it wasn't strong enough to land Law a spot in the final round.
The 11 students who made it were allowed to read their poems once more. In the end, Travis Kaupp won first place and a $50 gift certificate for his scathing poem that began, "Oh, Lord! Society is truly crumbling ..."
Reading his poem from a crumpled piece of paper, the seventh-grader took aim at racism, sexism, stereotypes and hypocrisy -- all in the span of one typed page.
"I see a kid talking about how people stereotype him, even though he acts like the stereotype ...
"I think of my own stereotype. The boy who does everything right. The teacher's pet. The nerd. Even teachers follow this stereotype of me. It makes me want to vomit ... "
"I walk outside to see a girl passing out 'Save the World! Stop littering' pamphlets. The wind blows the stack away and she makes no attempt to pick them up. A boy that is always wearing a cross makes a joke about Jesus. A thousand children bound to be the murderers, rapists and psychopaths of tomorrow."
Travis' imagery and strong language left some adults in the room agape.
Afterward, the boy said he didn't expect to win the Poetry Slam. He said he thought he would take a back seat to a girl whose memorized singsong poetry about life and death earned a strong response from the audience.
"I was afraid the crowd would riot," he joked about winning the top prize.