Three years ago, when he and his mother arrived in Baltimore, Giovanni Ramirez-Cruz did not speak a word of English. On Friday, he received a trophy at his school, the Mother Seton Academy in Fells Point, for giving the best speech among the eighth-grade boys there - and he had plenty of competition for the top honor.
There was Avery Burrell, for instance, who gave an impassioned performance as a middle-school weightlifter determined to achieve greatness without the use of steroids. The theme of the eighth-grade speeches, a spring tradition at the school, was "The power of one word," and Avery's word was "strength."
He portrayed a young man tempted to take a performance-enhancing drug, and he mentioned famous athletes - Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens - who've been accused of doing that. Ultimately, the boy Avery portrayed decides not to take the pill. Real strength, Avery said, means you are a person of character. "Real strength comes from within," he said, and the students, parents and staff in the cramped third-floor assembly room broke into excited applause for Avery's admirable declarations.
Edgar Laviera's word was "brother," and he presented his speech as a one-man play, as did each of the boys who gave these rite-of-passage performances at the little school on South Ann Street.
Edgar portrayed an exhausted soldier in Iraq carrying a wounded comrade across a desert to a medical tent - the act of a true brother. There's a lot of power in that word, Edgar told us, enough perhaps "to turn a world of fighters into a world of lovers. ... The power of one word: Brother!"
Next up was Renaldo Ramirez, 13, who spoke of power - for good, for evil. He told of Hitler, and Renaldo described his visit to the Holocaust museum in Washington, and his effort to comprehend, as sunlight fell through the museum windows, how power could bring such darkness to the world. Renaldo bowed his head and softened his voice: "I pray for all the victims of the Holocaust."
Daniel Boyce chose the word "respect." He told of a woman named Darlene, who is brutalized by her abusive husband, but who overcomes her fears and discovers self-respect. "Fear is toxic, respect is nurturing," Daniel said. "Fear destroys self-confidence, respect builds it. Fear is forced, respect is earned."
Brother Jesse O'Neill, a Mother Seton teacher, introduced the next speaker: Bobby Keys.
Bobby's word was "jealousy." He portrayed a teenager who is envious of everyone and everything in her school. But jealousy turns you bitter, Bobby told us, and somehow the girl learns this lesson, and by her 10th class reunion, she's made friends with those she once envied. "I'm better," she says, "not bitter."
Now Durrell Igwe, who lost his father to an act of violence when he was 3 years old, stood before the assembly and declared his word: "connection."
He took on the role of a basketball player, longing to see his father at one of his games, glancing, at a critical moment in a high school championship, to see if he appears. He never does. Durrell recited a brief poem called "Silent Connection," which tells of a lasting, spiritual connection with a lost loved one.
"I am furious that my father did not show up," the basketball player says, in Durrell's portrayal. "But there is no need to stress." He stops looking for his father and makes the game-winning shot. "I am a good person. My father missed a good thing. ... I will live my life, silent but connected, and pray that one day we will be connected."
Keyon Urquhart chose "anger" for his word, and he described a successful businessman who let something unimportant get the best of him. He mentioned road rage, too. "We live in a very confrontational world today," Keyon said. "But I don't let petty things get to me. ... There are more important things to do besides walking around being angry."
Now it was Giovanni Ramirez-Cruz's turn. He'd been a student at Mother Seton since sixth grade, after he, his mother and brother moved to Baltimore from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, to be with his father, a restaurant worker here. Sister Ellen Smith taught him the English language, and that's what Giovanni took as his theme: "language."
"Je t'aime," he began. "Ich liebe dich ... Anee ohev otakh ... Ti amo ... Anh yeu em."
His classmates giggled. They didn't understand. Giovanni explained: He had just said, "I love you" in French, German, Hebrew, Italian and Vietnamese.
Then he spoke to his classmates in his native Spanish, and most of them didn't understand that, either. "I am happy to be here from my splendid land of Mexico," Giovanni said. "This discussion helps me get out everything that I have inside of me. I can tell you how I feel and what I think about the spoken word."
Language is powerful, Giovanni said, and it must be used for good. "We have to teach children not to use abusive language," he said. "The world is full of weapons. Let's not add language."
He quoted a song, "Love In Any Language," and the words, he said, "remind us that love is always going to pull us all together."
" ... We live in a world where there is hate, fighting and a lot of violence. We must say to one another: Je t'aime ... Ich liebe dich ... Anee ohev otakh ... Ti amo ... Anh yeu em."
Dan Rodricks is the host of "Midday," noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, on 88.1 WYPR-FM.