For those of you unaware of the momentous goings on a couple of weeks ago, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state championships in Speech were determined on February 19 and 20 in Peoria. Individual winners were crowned in fourteen events, with the Mt. Prospect Knights winning the overall state championship. I know all this because my senior daughter was there and has participated on her high school’s speech team for the past four years.
Speech is one of the more arcane high school activities as it is based on competition, as raw and unvarnished as any football game or volleyball match, coupled with intellectual prowess and acting skills. In a typical speech competition, competitors in each individual event are divided into groups of six to present before a single judge in a high school classroom. Each speaker performs his/her/their (in the case of two-person events like dramatic or humorous duets) piece within a proscribed time limit. The judge scrawls comments on a score sheet and tallies various criteria before, finally and most importantly after all six have presented, ranking them one through six based on the judge’s experience and opinions. This happens three times at most tournaments, after which the top performers, based on the judges’ rankings (those with the lowest scores—if you’ve been ranked first in all your preliminary rounds, you have a score of 3, which is as good as it gets), “break” or move to the finals. (The two-day, larger events will result in your breaking into the semi-finals where more competitors will be culled out before the finals.) After each finals performer has done one last speech, the tournament then culminates with an awards ceremony in front of the assembled teams where medals are presented and an overall team winner is announced. One slight difference for the state meet is that it is held in the Peoria Civic Center, rather than at a high school.
The competitions themselves are unusual by most high school standards: All the teams gather at the host school so that the speeches can begin by 8:00 A.M., typically on a Saturday. In order to get there in time to warm up and establish your home base in the host school’s cafeteria, most teams try to arrive well before eight, which means they must be at their home schools ridiculously early—my daughter had to arrive by 6:00 A.M. for most of her tournaments. But you also should understand that the uniforms for speech events—business formal with blazers and skirts for the girls and vested suits for the boys—aren’t something kids just jump into when they stumble out of bed. Basically, my daughter had to be up by 4:45 A.M. to get her outfit, make-up, and hair (she had to curl it for her first two years) together after which I would drive her to school at 5:45 A.M. so she could give speeches at least three and, if all went well, four times (or double, even triple that when she was entered in multiple events) before she would get back to her school, usually by six or seven that evening.
Then there’s the stress of the competition itself. If you’ve never attended one, they are fascinating and bizarre. All these teenagers dressed like Gordon Gekko or Hillary Clinton are running up and down the halls, clacking away in their dress shoes and heels, pacing back and forth in front of rows of lockers as they quietly go over the rockiest bits of their speech in one last desperate attempt to get it down before they’re in front of a judge. In the competition rooms, everyone sits politely, attentively, and applauds quietly (my daughter was fit to be tied one time when I had the temerity to whistle after her speech). There aren’t usually many, if any observers besides the person evaluating your performance—looking for flaws that will help to make it easier to rank you lower—and the other people competing with you who have a vested interest in your doing poorly. I went to a few of my daughter’s individual event performances, and my wife and I were generally the only “audience” in attendance. Essentially, you perform your speech for a hostile crowd with only the judge being neutral (but extremely judgmental).
Then, there are all the rituals and customs which have evolved over the eons. Despite all the creativity required for the speeches themselves, many aspects of the performances must rigidly conform to standards or established traditions. In one of my daughter’s events, Prose, where the speakers would read famous pieces from a notebook; how one introduces the piece, turns the page, and carefully closes the binder to clasp it to one’s breast all have to be done exactly the same way by each competitor. Her other main event over the years was Original Oratory, where the kids research a topic of their choice and give a persuasive, documented presentation. Again, much originality and individual effort go into the construction of the speech, but its five basic parts—introduction, explanation of problem, causes, solutions, and conclusion—must be delivered from different places in the room: You start in the middle for your intro, move stage right four or five steps for the problem, back to the middle for causes, move four or five steps stage left for the solutions, and then come back to center for the big finish. And, no, you can’t reverse the directions or stand in the same place for two parts of your speech. Or you can, but then you probably won’t break.
And should you be “double entered” (performing in two events), you have to ask permission to leave the room after you have given your speech, and you’d better be sure you say, “Good luck, everybody!” in the properly cheerful (if generally hypocritical) tone of voice.
And like figure skating or gymnastics, the evaluation of your performance is in the hands of a human and is based largely on a subjective opinion of how you did. Yes, anyone can see that you closed your binder correctly or hit the right five spots in the room for the five parts of your speech, but how can you make sure scientifically or objectively that your Original Comedy was the funniest? You can’t cross the finish line first or score the most points in Poetry Reading or Oratorical Declamation. And since each team competing has to supply a certain number of judges for each competition, the expertise and experience of those judges can vary widely, not to mention their attention to detail. One time, my daughter barely missed breaking into the finals in one of her events. On Monday when she got to look at the judges’ sheets, she was shocked to see that on one of her sheets her ranking was sixth, four or five places lower than her other rankings, despite no negative comments or suggestions for improvement. A closer examination of the paper showed that the “6” written in the ranking box on her sheet was in black ink, compared to blue for the comments, and the “6” seemed to be different handwriting from everything else on the page. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s entirely possible that this judge lost track of my daughter’s sheet, ranked the other five kids, turned in the sheets, and when somebody else realized the judge’s oversight, that person just put the only rank left on my daughter’s sheet.
So after reading all of this, you would be forgiven if you thought it absolutely idiotic for any kid to spend hours and hours participating in a highly competitive activity where you get little positive feedback, your efforts are judged by those who sometimes have little understanding of what you do, and you work tirelessly only to have a subjective evaluation dash your hopes of success. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Speech is an amazing learning opportunity for high school kids.
Every extra-curricular activity in high school will provide its participants with some beneficial skills. Teamwork, cooperation, dedication, and responsibility are required for just about anything you might join. That’s why it’s so important and life-altering for all high school students to have at least one or two outside-of-class activities if at all possible. Additionally, extra-curriculars will provide participants with other avenues for specific talents which often have few other outlets and are incredibly meaningful to many kids. Most people understand the physical dedication and athletic skills required of sports, not to mention the renown and even college scholarships sometimes granted to the most talented. In sports, you can also learn about physical fitness and become proficient in a game you can play for the rest of your life (golf and tennis being two like that). Musical, artistic, journalistic, and business interests can be followed in band, chorus, photography, art, newspaper, yearbook, and DECA, to name just a few. And there are more than enough other clubs, activities, and teams to join in most suburban high schools, with all providing participants many positive opportunities. But I believe speech is in a class by itself in the training it provides in dozens of incredibly useful ways that can pay off forever in all facets of a person’s life.
Since “Speech” is its name, you automatically get experience in one of the most difficult activities for the vast majority of people: Public speaking. Whenever surveys are done on the things people fear most, giving a speech ranks near the top every time. Normally rational, intelligent, lucid people often fall to pieces at the prospect of making a presentation to an audience of more than one. Yet, these teenagers are required to memorize seven-minute speeches (When was the last time you had to memorize anything?), knowing that they will be penalized for every slip, stumble, or failure to move in the correct direction at the appropriate time. You think that kid’s gonna have any trouble dazzling a business meeting with the help of notes, PowerPoints, laptops, and projectors? Speech team veterans will understand how to present themselves physically (good posture and eye contact), speak loudly enough for all to hear (to “dominate the room with your voice without yelling” as I would instruct my English class students), have no annoying body movements or gestures, be free of grating vocalized pauses habits (“like,” “ya know,” “okay,” or –my personal demon– “all right?” [For all my projected confidence, my vocalized pause kept betraying my need for understanding and approval. And you didn’t know how psychologically revealing your vocal patterns can be, did you?]), and exude a quiet confidence that will make all believe that in the event of some catastrophe, they would easily be able to rescue everyone, without mussing a single hair.
Speech kids also have to learn how to find good stuff on the internet. For that Original Oratory speech my daughter would write each year, she was required to take a researchable subject; stake a position out with which others could disagree; find support for her position with data, credible experts, and examples; insert an exact quotation or two from those experts into her speech; and organize the essay/speech which would include an introduction that needed to be riveting to a captive audience, clear explanations of all that might be unfamiliar to someone not well-versed in the topic, and end with a rousing call-to-action on whatever issue she had chosen. She would then commit it to memory, practice her movements as she was speaking it, and then rehearse it until she could do it all within the seven-minute time limit, which translates into a speech of three-to-four thousand words. Yeah, that’s a lot to be able to do well, all of which will be useful in college and beyond.
There are many other valuable lessons that speech taught her: Working extremely hard for not much credit or even attention, accepting the unfairness of being ranked on subjective criteria, learning that hard work would often have to be its own reward since the fruits of her labors wouldn’t always result in any immediate pay-offs, and generally having to deal with all those “adult” kinds of issues that competing in a subjective universe teach all grown-ups once they enter the working world. No, that’s not as much fun as hoisting a basketball state championship trophy over your head or getting a standing ovation at the end of a play or recital, but speech kids are primed for success in many ways that are more important, and all of which promote maturity.
So although her season didn’t end the way she wanted, she did get to participate in the only group activity at the state speech tournament (the only time this event is run), Performance in the Round, where a group of kids perform a fifteen minute play. And her group did a phenomenal job, finishing sixth overall after competing in the regional, sectional, and state meets. But long after the excitement over doing so well that Saturday in Peoria has faded—it already pretty much has for her—and for the rest of her life, she will be using the skills she developed during her four years of speech team participation. It is definitely one of the tougher activities for a high school kid, but I know of no other extra-curricular that gives its participants more. And you all will appreciate what speech has done for her as she is brilliantly delivering her seventh State of the Union address, sometime later this century. No, it’s not as glamorous or exciting as many other extra-curricular activities, but every high school freshman should consider going out for speech.