William Williams tried to kill himself by the time he was 9 .
Growing up, William said he could hear gunshots from his subsidized housing in Norfolk. When he went to school, other youngsters harassed him, saying he’d never amount to anything.
On Sunday night William shared his story as part of Slamfest, a poetry competition put on by Teens With a Purpose. That Norfolk-based organization aims to empower teenagers across Hampton Roads and highlight their strengths.
William was one of eight young people who shared stories of hardship at the Zeiders American Dream Theater. The top four finishers – William, Nia Naomi Johnson, Jeremiah Hagan and Devon Carter – earned the right to move on to an international event in July in San Francisco.
William took first place. His three poems talked about rising above the struggles life dealt him.
“I’ve gone through a lot but I can’t let it impede on my progress,” William said.
Other competitors had similarly difficult stories. Khosi McClain, a freshman at Old Dominion University, said his parents died before he turned 5.
Khosi said his poem talking about growing up without a mother and father took about a year to write. But it was helpful to him.
“I heal through my poetry,” he said.
While the event was a competition, it was also a celebration. Whenever a judge gave a score deemed too low, many in the crowd chanted, “Listen to the poem!” Breaks during the three-hour event gave the dozens in attendance time to congratulate each poet.
Leila Hamilton, a seventh-grader at the Academy for Discovery at Lakewood in Norfolk, said the supportive atmosphere was one of the things she liked about the competition. Her poems talked about the reasons people behave in certain ways.
“Get people to see why people are the way they are,” Leila said.
William was the final poet of the night.
His piece talked about “hating the person in the mirror every single day” when he was young. His father wasn’t a part of his life, and other children teased him and told him he would never achieve anything, he said.
Now William is 16, he said, a sophomore at Granby High School. And he thanked those peers for making him stronger.
“Thank you for making me a man,” he said.