CHAMPAIGN — Carolyn Muller, a senior at Central High School, may be the community's newest state champion, but she's also a student who cares deeply about her classmates and the challenges they face.
Muller recently won the state Poetry Out Loud competition in Springfield on March 29 and will take an all-expense-paid trip to Washington in May to compete for the national title. If she wins, Muller could bring home a $20,000 scholarship.
Muller won Central's school competition and second place at regional (behind Centennial student David Kessler) with the first two poems, and added "Ovation" for state, after hearing an acting classmate perform and perfect it during workshops in class.
"I still made it my own poem," Muller said, but watching her classmate perform it well gave her a good foundation with it.
"I love these three poems," Muller said, adding that she tends to connect better with more melancholy, serious, dramatic work.
She chose the first two in acting class, during a poetry unit, and used them during workshop sessions with classmates that included memorization, a focus on accuracy and constructive criticism.
LaDonna Wilson teaches the class and said part of the reason Muller has been so successful with Poetry Out Loud is that she sees it as a performance, rather than a public-speaking opportunity.
"The poems that she picked all had a particular moment that she really connected with," Wilson said, "and she was able to convey that to somebody else."
One of the judges, a professional poet, told Muller she felt like she'd known her 20 years after hearing her perform.
"It felt like she was having a conversation with (Muller)," Wilson said. "I felt it was a great compliment, for a successful poet to connect with a high school student that way."
Muller admits she has a love of performing — she recently played Iago in Central's performance of "Othello" and will play Mrs. Potts in the upcoming performance of "Beauty and the Beast." (As head of the publicity committee of Thespians, she reminds you that performances are at 7 p.m. April 18-21 and at 2:30 p.m. April 22 at Central.)
She's also involved in many other activities at Central. She medaled in Science Olympiad, but science is a hobby compared with her love for writing, current events and helping people who are struggling.
She finds inspiration in things she reads, especially "Harry Potter" and the "Protector of the Small" quartet by Tamora Pierce. Both are about strong characters doing what's right, even when it's hard, Muller said.
She wants to help those who are feeling small, she said.
"I've felt small before, and appreciated it when people helped me," Muller said. "I'd like to return the favor."
She does so through Spectrum Gay-Straight Alliance, of which she's co-president. The group brings together students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and straight, she said, to talk about challenges and conflicts they face.
"I'm passionate about social justice and political activism," Muller said. "I just don't like it when people get picked on."
She's president of the Eco Club, which Wilson said has her coming in early collecting recyclables from classrooms, and she's shaved her head twice in the last two years to raise money for childhood cancer research through The St. Baldrick's Foundation.
"I've always been different," Muller said. "I've always done things my own way."
Wilson, who has worked with Muller in theater productions and sponsors the Spectrum Gay-Straight Alliance at Central High School, called Muller "probably the most socially aware student that I've ever had."
When Muller goes to college next year (she'll study creative writing and political science at Augustana College), Wilson said it will leave a hole because she's involved in so many things.
"She's just such a strong individual," Wilson said. "She's a very strong woman."
Along with caring deeply for her fellow students and getting involved in all sorts of activities at Central, Muller's mother, Susan Kapacinskas, said her daughter has always had a love of performing.
"I'm just enjoying this because she's such a ham," Kapacinskas said. "She's my little drama queen and it has served her well."
But there's more to her daughter than just a love of performing in front of others.
"She's just a nice kid," Kapacinskas said. "She tends to feel things intensely and she likes to be involved."
Kapacinskas said it was a little nerve-wracking to see her daughter competing for a state championship, but she spent the evening trying to enjoy her daughter's performances, in case they were the last of Muller's senior year.
"Her final round poem ('Ovation') is very emotional," Kapacinskas said. "It was very moving and it was just terrific.
"She got a standing ovation and it was so exciting. I'm just thrilled for her, and hopeful, although don't want to jinx her (for the national competition). I think my kid's a winner anyway."