Age 12 can be quite the time of discovery. Challand Middle School seventh-grader Naomi Chamberlain has found out a lot about herself over the past 10 days.
In reading her thought-provoking, sometimes heart-wrenching poem to a crowd that included dozens of veterans at her school’s Veterans Day assembly Nov. 10, she learned she can, in fact, command a crowd.
“I was very nervous,” she said. “I was just trying to get through the poem as fast as I could once I was up there.”
“We didn’t see any of that,” Bill Eberly said. “She just got up there, took the microphone and did her thing.”
Eberly, like the Chamberlains, is a member of First Baptist Church in Sterling. He and his wife, Carol, support Naomi by attending as many of her events as they can. They were also at Challand to support their pastor, the Rev. Jack Smith, an 80-year-old Marine Corps veteran.
The poem, “Why Thank a Veteran,” shares the story of Sgt. Bjarne Nielsen, of the 1 Royal Canadian Regiment that left for Afghanistan May 13 – his daughter’s birthday.
“Men and women in the military,” Naomi read, “fight hard and always bury, all their fear, so that they may … help and protect the enemy’s prey. So thank them for their selfless sacrifice, because freedom comes at an unimaginable price.”
The crowd sprung into a standing ovation, and Naomi – so worried about sharing her work in front of her peers and strangers – received high-five after high-five as she scaled the bleachers.
“To me, it was just tremendous,” Smith said.
So tremendous he asked her to read it Sunday morning at church, where she got another standing ovation.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get children in the church in front of people, and get them used to that,” Smith said. “A lot of adults won’t get in front of the church and read to people.”
Despite a sizable generation gap, Naomi has at least one thing in common with veterans. Most don’t call attention to themselves. They don’t boast about their accomplishments, or what they’ve been through.
Naomi, too, deftly deflects any praise.
“I actually don’t think this poem is really great,” she said. “I still don’t. I don’t know why people are making a big deal out of it, truthfully. I just thought everyone was being nice.”
Poor Naomi. She wants to be an author, and that sort of reaction of praise just about seals her fate. We’re our own worst critics. For what it's worth, we in the Sauk Valley Media editorial department have this critique: Naomi is already an author wise well beyod her years, and one who knows and appreciates her audience.
During her research, she came across a lot of happy veteran stories.
“But I wanted one that kind of dealt with the harder content – because it’s more relatable,” she said. “When I read about a father leaving on his daughter’s birthday, I felt bad for him that he had to be away from his family, and that he had to be deployed in this horrible war.
“When I think of veterans, I think of all the stuff they had to face. Everybody knows that what veterans deal with, it isn’t happy.”
Her grandfathers are veterans. In fact, her maternal grandfather, Tam Pham, who now lives in Arkansas, served in the South Vietnamese Air Force. Naomi’s mother, Tram, vividly remembers coming to America in 1975, during the fall of Saigon.
“The sacrifice – especially of the American soldiers who came over and helped us during the war – as difficult as that was, I appreciate all the soldiers and their efforts, having been through a war – literally,” Tram said.
Whether you grow up in wartime or during peace, the entry into teen years can be tough.
Smith, for one, was reassured last week that Naomi is faring pretty doggone well.
“When I saw her up there, I thought, ‘Little Naomi is growing up.’ She’s so humble, and all those words came from her heart, and I know a lot of veterans who will love to hear them.”