Curtis Babers' hands flitted in and out of shapes too deliberate to be simple gestures.
Some of his competitors in the 17th annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competition punched the air or pounded their chests for effect, but Rebbie Smith, Curtis' mother, understood the patterns her son formed.
He was speaking to her in sign language.
"My mother is hearing-impaired," Curtis explained. In his speech, he called for people to rebuild families and communities, to trade dancing in club houses for seeking justice in courthouses.
Curtis spoke as Dr. Martin Luther King when he asked, "How can a fourth-grade African-American have such a heavy burden on his heart?
"I can never reach my full potential because I need my fellow neighbors," he answered, referencing a reminder of the civil rights leader that, in essence, we are all in this together.
Jonathan Howard, who won the competition in 2001 and recently graduated from the same Atlanta college as King, returned to Antioch Missionary Baptist Church of Christ in Houston on Friday to congratulate and encourage the students.
"You had to create something, take criticism, and practice over and over until you were the best that you could be," Howard said. "Be grateful for all of the people here today working to help you fulfill your purpose."
Classmates slid down dark wood pews to support the 12 fourth- and fifth-grade students who had advanced to the finals. Like a pep rally, the children stood and hollered when the finalist from their school finished with a bow or curtsy.
About 450 students from 24 HISD schools entered the earliest round of the annual competition, which many see as the highlight of the city's MLK holiday weekend.
Hugs and kisses
Finalists sat in the first row, and before the event some crossed and uncrossed their hands or stretched to tap their toes on the floor. Mothers, fathers and teachers gave them reassuring hugs and embarrassing kisses before taking their own seats. The competitors sometimes turned to search for a familiar face.
Curtis spoke in sign to his mother and brothers seated several rows behind him. Kevin Kabanda leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. When Amari Venzor threw his arms in the air and yelled, "Yes!" his family cheerfully scolded his enthusiasm.
Samaya Watson, a fifth-grader who placed third in last year's competition, stared ahead with straight lips and pulled her feet in and out of black dress shoes that were given a second life when an aunt embellished them with colorful gems.
Despite her solemn appearance, she said she was just hungry - not nervous.
Malcolm Taylor admitted he didn't work very hard on his speech last year, but this time, he was determined to win.
"I worked with my mom on my speech because my dad, I hardly see him," Malcolm said. "The only person I usually look up to is my mom."
So, naturally, he called for more male role models.
"Do you know how many people have paved the way for you?" Malcolm, who would place second, asked the audience. His sponsor whispered, "Yes!" each time he nailed a point.
Asked to explain what they would say to Dr. King if he were still alive today, the students challenged mankind to set aside war, discrimination and selfishness that divides the world down to the family level.
Most framed their speeches around personal experience.
The daughter of Mali immigrants called for world unity and justice.
The granddaughter of a quadriplegic activist asked for communities to respect, not just tolerate, people with disabilities.
A boy whose home was robbed extolled the need to win the war on drugs.
But ultimately, it was Curtis' choice to speak to his mother - to sacrifice gestures - which pushed him to the front of the judges' rankings.
He covered his mouth with his hands as his name was announced. Smith stood and hugged her older son, crying as Curtis stepped slowly onto the stage to accept his award.
The crowd roared with applause and cheers, but Curtis still saw his mother sign her approval from across the sanctuary.