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A classic battle in the Fens

Young gladiators go for the slam

Midway through the Museum of Fine Arts Egyptian gallery, visitors hear the murmuring of another civilization. Beyond the mummies, 50-plus teenage students from local high schools mingle and move among Greek vases, many clutching paperback editions of Homer's ''Iliad" and ''Odyssey."

Some pace about, furling and unfurling photocopied pages with highlighted hexameters. Others gather in groups on the floor that will soon serve as stage for an ancient, gentle poetry slam. The more serious forgo the chitchat for a last-minute review of index cards scrawled with versified scenes that took place some 2,700 years ago.

They're contestants in the museum's second annual Student Rhetoric Competition, created to coincide with an exhibition on the original Olympics, and they court the embrace of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. If not a deity, they're at least seeking the favor of their teachers -- and a few extra-credit points for their after-school participation.

Judith King pushes back the bangs of her Cleopatra-like hairdo and welcomes the students whose duds range from tees to ties. (None wore a toga.) The museum's education outreach manager, King reminds the contestants that the judges will focus on the ''emotion, diction, and accuracy" of their recitations.

Then she begins the roll call of middle school students. High school students sigh in relief, knowing they're off the hook for an hour. The young teens leave their circle of friends to stand before three judges perched as if on Mount Olympus. Between display cases holding tangible expressions of the lines they speak, students summon courage -- and the Muse.

''I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world," bellows Celestine Warren, 13, a Milton Academy student from Cambridge who stands with ramrod posture and one raised fist, hoping to embody the epic hero's hubris.

The judges look impressed, briefly betraying their stoicism with smiles. The students don't play it cool. They meet Warren's closing lines -- after making it through names of islands such as Dulichion and Zacanthus -- with applause, turning the heads of others visiting the museum.

In an interview afterward, Warren explains her interest in classics.

''The myths connect with everything," says Warren, who made a last-minute switch from the Robert Fitzgerald translation favored by her teachers to the Robert Fagles translation chosen by the judges.

''They say things we still care about: the idea of leading a good life and dying a noble death."

Later, King calls on a bespectacled boy in an orange sweatshirt and khakis. He steps forward gingerly.

Then, with one Homeric syllable, Peter Egan, 13, bursts to life.

''So Odysseus prayed and Athena heard his prayer," he declaims with a force belying his slight frame.

The Boston Latin Academy eighth-grader from Readville vivifies the dramatic footrace between Ajax and Odysseus. His relish in describing Ajax's fall into a pile of dung brings down the house.

The Muses do not smile on every contestant.

Stage fright freezes a few mid-verse. Other clutch skirt hems, rock from sneaker to sneaker, or sigh dramatically before turning to the judges for a hint.

Paul Adamson regrets needing an assist during his performance of lines chronicling the athletic contests of the original Olympics. Dressed in a Michael Jordan game shirt and a pristine white Red Sox cap, the Boston Latin Academy sophomore from Roxbury promises to return next year with a flawless, more dramatic presentation.

A reluctant convert to the classics, Adamson, 14, says he overcame his aversion to ''the dead language spoken by doctors and lawyers" when he saw the sport in poetry.

''It's about performance and talent and style," he says. ''It's a challenge. I love a challenge. I might take Greek my senior year."

Deep into the second hour of the event, the dour words begin to lose their gravity.

A half-dozen randomly called high school students -- somehow -- have all prepared the same scene: Priam begging Achilles for the proper burial of his son.

The heartbreaking last line loses its pathos the fourth time around: ''I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before -- I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son."

At the end, Judith King applauds all the students, who applaud one another. King thanks the judges with bottles of extra-virgin olive oil and apologizes for not handing off an amphora, the nine-gallon vessel used by the ancient Greeks to carry wine and oil.

Charles ''Dan" Earley, a Boston College High School sophomore who sings and dances his poetry, wins the high school laurel for his channeling of the Blind Bard Demodocus.

Egan earns the middle school competition's leafy crown.

After all the others have left, Egan hangs back, leaning in for a closer look at a Greek statue.

Asked about his victory, he eyes the artifact while turning the wreath in his hands.

''The victory is more for my school than for me," he says.

''It's like the Greeks teach us: you should enjoy it, but you shouldn't gloat."

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