Cheyenne youth wins national poetry championship

Michael Cummo, Wyoming Tribune Eagle photo Cheyenne East High graduate Jayden Roccaforte, 18, poses for a photo with his 2020 National Speech and Debate championship trophy inside his Cheyenne home. In addition to Roccaforte’s 2020 win for prose, he took home the top prize this year for poetry.

CHEYENNE – Jayden Roccaforte has been asked too many times in his life “What are you?” to actually keep count. 

It’s not even uncommon for someone to try to touch his curly hair, asking him what race his parents are and inquiring about his skin color. Roccaforte and most of his family members have dealt with these well-meaning, but ignorant, questions all of their lives. 

“People would come up to me and start petting me like a dog,” he said. “I wanted to show that when you talk to mixed people like that, it makes them feel like a commodity, like the only reason I’m here is for you to look at my curly hair or silky brown skin.” 

So to properly express his feelings about being a biracial person, he decided to perform a poem called “Mutts” during this year’s National Speech and Debate Tournament, his final competition as a student at Cheyenne’s East High. 

Of everything he has ever done during his speech and debate career in high school, this was the most personal piece he’s ever done, combining six or seven slam poetry pieces into “Mutts.” 

It was so impactful, Roccaforte was named the national champion in the poetry category this year. This was his second national win (he took home the top prize last year in prose interpretation), making him Wyoming’s first-ever back-to-back national speech and debate champion and East High’s third national champion ever. 

The tournament was held virtually, but was ultimately the largest national speech and debate competition ever held, with nearly 7,000 students competing from all over the country. 

In addition to his national wins, Roccaforte and classmate Alexa Meija were also honored as the high school’s second- and third-ever four-time qualifiers, an extremely difficult and rare accomplishment in the speech and debate world.

Roccaforte is quick to point out that he could not have achieved two back-to-back national wins without his teammates and coaches, though. 

“It really is a community, the speech and debate team at my school and at every school that has one,” he said. “It’s its own little family, and with the support of the coaches and other competitors, everyone is allowed to grow.” 

It has taken many hours of work and dedication for him to get to this point, as well. Roccaforte joined the East speech and debate team during his freshman year, following in his older brother’s footsteps. 

Plus, he’d been involved in theater in middle school and wanted to grow his performance skills. 

“Speech and debate was really an opportunity for me to have my own space to perform and express myself,” he said. “You can’t really do that in a big show with lots of other people. With this, the whole show is just you.”

Originally, he gravitated toward humor because he loves making people laugh. But his coach, Marcus Viney, took him aside during his sophomore year and made a suggestion: try poetry. 

Viney gave his student a packet with poems he thought Roccaforte might nail at their next competition. He was right. 

“It really spoke to me, the way poetry is written, the way you can use so many different poems from different authors to spearhead an argument,” Roccaforte said. “If it weren’t for the teachers and coaches pushing you out of your comfort zone, we wouldn’t be as competitive as we are, and I wouldn’t be national champion.” 

It was a pretty incredible moment for Roccaforte when he won at nationals, but he’s not done with speech and debate. He received a full-ride scholarship to Casper College, so he intends to spend the next two years competing on its speech and debate team. 

“I just still feel like I have so much more to say,” he said.

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