Why Any of This Matters-Lena Lofgren

On my first day of high school, I walked up to my history teacher (who, through extensive research, I had discovered to be the debate coach) and said, “I want to join the debate team. Where do I sign up?” I always hear my friends’ stories of unknowingly walking into a meeting, maybe even being roped in by enthusiastic classmates, with no understanding of what awaited them. But me? My intentions were clear as day- it was what would come after that I never could have imagined. Debate opens doors. Doors to friends, activism, politics, better essays, more confidence- whatever it is, debate probably helps with it.

But anyone who knows me can probably tell you that my journey as a Congressional debater wasn’t without some major obstacles along the way. I had a stellar sophomore year competitively; I broke at every tournament, shattered even my own expectations, and was on a spectacular upward trajectory. Over the summer, however, I started to question that. Come junior year, I would no longer be the really impressive sophomore who had a pretty solid showing in semis. I was entering the major league: upper-classmen territory, where being “good” meant top 6, maybe finals. I wish I could tell you that I went into Rocky-mode, prepped day and night, gave practice speeches every morning, and came out on top- because, frankly, I didn’t. I was scared I had peaked, worried about how it would look and feel if I didn’t live up to the expectations I had for myself, fearful that I could never be truly great. A coach from my district implanted further doubt in my mind, telling my coach that I was too short, too feminine, and my voice too high-pitched for me to be able to further succeed in an event that’s meant to reflect the actual Congress- one which lacks diversity and projects the old, white man as the ideal legislator.

So I switched to Oratory. I did fine, won some locals, got a bid- but I felt lonely and empty. I wasn’t doing the event I loved and was passionate about, the event that gave me fire and made me excited and helped me understand the world and my place in it. I was away from my friends in Congress, people who I deeply empathized with. I remember going to tournaments and comparing the Congress schedule with the speech schedule, trying to figure out times that I could sneak over to see them and still run back to round on time. Apart from the improved sleep schedule and self-care that Oratory afforded me, I was miserable. I knew I wasn’t in the right place, even though, quite frankly, I was doing comparatively better. I made what I thought was a temporary decision to try out Congress again, and (surprise!) it stuck.

Do I feel like switching to oratory hindered my progress in Congress? Honestly, yes. I missed out on so many tournaments, so much practice, and so much exposure. I found myself falling behind peers who I had consistently ranked over in the past. But, while I may not be as high up on the rankings as I hoped and expected when I started out, I couldn’t care less. This year, I realized the most important thing debate has taught me: that, at the end of the day, speech and debate in and of itself doesn’t matter all that much. The world and our futures are so vast, and it’s easy to focus on one activity alone and to let it define who we are and how successful we deem ourselves as having been. But what’s any of that for?

I took the fall off from debate this year. I worked on a Congressional campaign, fine-tuned my college applications, concentrated on my schoolwork, and did some semi-normal high school things. Did that hurt my debate standings? Hell yeah it did. Do I care? Not one bit. I got into my dream school, did really well in my classes, spent much-needed time with my friends, and went to some pretty awesome political events. But when I got to introduce Nancy Pelosi at a fundraiser? You bet I used every one of the skills I learned from debate. In a few years, I’ll forget how I placed at every tournament. I’ll have absolutely no idea how anybody was ranked in the nation. But, in 10, 20, 30 years, I will remember the skills this event has taught me, that I have and will continue to use in the future. I’ll remember the forever-friends I made, and how they stood by me when all hell broke loose. I’ll remember late nights and long road trips with my team. And that night I accidentally fell asleep on FaceTime with my coach and forgot to prep for Yale semis? That’ll be a funny memory too. But, most of all, I’ll remember the person I was through all of it. Whether or not I was genuinely nice to that underclassman in my prelim. Whether or not I took part in malicious gossiping about other, really nice people in my event who just happened to be the target of those on top. Whether I took a few minutes out of my prep time to explain how something works to a new competitor. Whether or not I ever stuck my nose in the air and thought I was in any way better than someone who hadn’t reached a similar level of competitive success.

When I graduate, I know I won’t be remembered as the best debater of my time. But I seriously hope I can earn the legacy of being one of the nicest, one of the most supportive, accepting, helpful, or maybe even one of the most sportsmanlike. Debate doesn’t last forever, but a lot of things do. I can confidently say for myself, and hopefully others will agree, that I am much prouder to know (or to have been) the person known to always prioritize making others feel good than the person who won every national circuit tournament.

Speak-Noemi Rivera

“I think I’m gonna try to write an OO.” These were the words I said to my debate coach after leaving yet another tournament feeling unsatisfied with myself and my performance. I started competing my sophomore year, and although I knew of all of the different events I could potentially dive into, I felt almost bound to an event which required me to act and perform-rather than try an event that would exercise my ability to speak as just myself. At the time, not only did that seem absolutely terrifying, but downright impossible. I mean could you imagine? Having to talk for ten minutes straight without even having anything in your hands? I could hardly fathom the idea. Acting was something I’d been doing for years. I joined theatre arts in the seventh grade, and I absolutely fell in love with the stage. Being a character on stage in front of a full crowd? Piece of cake! Being myself in front of a room of 7 people? Somehow, that felt out of the question. But thankfully, having a supportive coach pushed me into gaining the courage to at least try to escape my comfort zone and just write the thing. And so I did.

I can remember the day clearly. The very first time I took my Oratory for a test drive I was a junior and the tournament was at Arlington High School. The minute I saw my name on those postings on the window I felt as if I was going to lose my breakfast. The words, “I can’t do this” were running through my head over and over and over again. I even contemplated skipping my round and just telling my coach I got sick. But something inside me told me that it was going to be worth it. Something just felt like this was going to be the feeling that I’d been waiting for. The feeling that told me that this is the reason that I’m competing. So I walked into my room, and I spoke. I spoke as myself; about the misrepresentation of minorities in film. I can confidently say that nothing I had ever done before had felt that incredible. Because it was me speaking. And about something that I was passionate about. I never even realized that was something that I wanted to do until I had done it. And from then on I couldn’t get enough. I left the round and-puked. But after giving my speech I remember how powerful I had felt walking back to my seat knowing that my words had left an impact on my audience. That at least something that I had said was bound to resonate with my judge or with my competitors. And at the very least, people were going to listen. You never realize how much you really want people to listen to you until you’re in a room full of people who are there, specifically, to listen.

My senior year in Speech and Debate was the most momentous year of my life thus far. With the help and nonstop support of my coach, Matthew Stewart, I wrote the most important thing I have ever written. My oratory was about the hegemony of English in the United States and the impact that has on our population who speak English as their second language. I had never believed in something more, nor been more passionate than I was than when I gave this speech. Each week was spent getting amped up for the tournament to come that Saturday. It was never about the success, the trophies, or the titles I would or wouldn’t earn that weekend. It was about speaking about a subject that was important. Making someone’s voice feel heard, even when they felt like as if they had no voice to begin with. Years from now, when I can't tell the tournaments that awarded me first from the ones that awarded me third, what I will be able to remember are the people who came up to me afterwards to thank me for speaking about something they didn’t have the courage to. I will remember the people who told me that my words brought them to tears with all the truth they’d left unspoken. And I will remember the people who said that my message was important to them. That the truth that I was speaking, was not only speaking for me. Through all the hardships and difficulties that I faced that season: from being told that my speaking spanish—my first language—during a round made people uncomfortable, to having to drop from the competition during Nationals because of severe illness, I can’t imagine it going any other way. And for those who ever feel themselves getting discouraged, I promise you; even if you haven’t heard it yet- your words matter. To someone, somewhere, your words are making a difference. Oratory brought out the best part of me. And I can only hope that whoever chooses to participate in this event, is doing so because they feel the same way. Go out and speak your truth. Speak for those who won’t and speak for those who can’t. Use your voice. It matters.

Win Some, Learn Some-Michael Bole

Having done debate for almost five years now, many are surprised when I tell them that my start in competitive forensics was not in Congressional Debate, but rather Oral Interpretation. My middle school days were filled with black binders, cutting pieces, and several uncoordinated outfits.

A self-proclaimed actor, I never saw myself or imagined competing in debate events. The choice to do so for the first time was quite out of character.


The days leading up to the middle school tournament were frustrating, to say the least. I scrolled through articles about topics I had never heard of, spent hours unable to think of a single argument, and struggled to garner the confidence to be passionate about what I was saying.

Yet, months away from graduating from both high school and high school debate, I have come to terms that my most valuable educational experience has come from surpassing this struggle and participating in debate.

Walking into the first round was intimidating, but with the help of my peers and coach, I felt ready to talk about significant issues, unbeknownst to me just a few weeks prior. I delivered my speeches, asked questions, and, to my surprise, felt really good about my performance.

I wanted to keep competing, but I began to realize that there was so much content knowledge that I didn’t know. Outside of the round, when my fellow competitors were engaged in a political discussion, I oftentimes stood silent. I felt uncomfortable, but most of all, unintelligent.

Every debate tournament became the ability to change that feeling. With every packet of legislation I had to debate, my eyes were opened to a wealth of knowledge. Whether it was the Syrian Refugee Crisis or even our own domestic infrastructure, reading new articles taught me about the world and changed how I acted in it.

The path to being a global citizen, through engaging in issues beyond our own borders, was created because of my involvement in debate.

Debate has given me more than any trophy or accomplishment. It allowed me to formulate my own opinions about the world around me. It has connected me to issues I feel passionate about. Most importantly, it has connected me to people I care about.

While I don’t have many tournaments left, I treat each one as a learning opportunity. They are a way to not only improve in debate, but to learn something I didn’t know before. I know that with every article I read, every speech I give, and every question I ask, I grow as a person.

To everyone who has been with me along this journey, thank you, because it has truly made the difference.

Charging Up a Crowd-Connor Sears

As I walked out on the final stage in 2017, two things were going through my head: “Holy crap, I’m on the final stage” and “what if I fail?” After walking away from that stage without a national championship I thought back to that question. Did I fail? If I had done things differently, practiced harder, or took more time, would I be walking away with a national championship? In retrospect, I realize that everyone is always asking themselves “what if I fail” in this activity because it is both competitive and subjective. Those two factors of speech are what make this activity so risky. When thinking about all this as I was entering into my senior year of competition and, frankly, last chance, I was forced to ask myself why I do this activity. 

Have you ever thought about that? I mean really thought about that? We crack jokes about all the stuff we put ourselves through, but it’s very real. We spend as much time if not more working on speech as we do schoolwork, we wake up at the butt-crack of dawn to start researching, typing, performing, etc., we spend hours working with coaches, we get on a stinky bus at 3am and don’t get to bed until 11pm, and we consume more pizza than any average human should, only to stand in front of someone’s mom, make a fool of ourselves, and then broken-heartedly look at postings because someone along the line didn’t like us. This was my Nationals 2016 experience, and it was from that moment on that I knew something was missing. 

Everyone wants to win, but what’s separating the people who want to make that semifinal or final from the people who will make that semifinal or final are the people who know that what they are presenting in their ten minutes is bigger than themselves. They know that their advocacy and message is bigger than any trophy that they could’ve won. 

I was approached by a young man after the 2017 national HI final, and I will never forget what he had said to me. It was a quick exchange, lasting no longer than a minute (give or take), but to this day, I think about this kid every time I feel discouraged or frustrated with this activity. I walked to the lobby outside the back of the Alabama theatre where everyone was waiting for the next final round. After being tapped on the shoulder, I turned around to see a young man in his “Hammin’ it up in Alabama” T-shirt with tears in his eyes. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that because of my performance, he finally felt enough courage and confidence to call his parents and tell them he was gay. If you know that experience, you know that telling your parents about your queer identity can be one of the hardest conversations to have, and I played a part in helping him live his truth openly and unapologetically. In that moment, I got to see first-hand the impact that this activity has on people. THAT is why I continue to do this. 

I like to think of this activity using the metaphor of a cell phone. Your cell phone is you and all the functions of the cell phone are your performance. You have to keep charging yourself, especially in an activity that will often pick you up one weekend and throw you down the next. Trophies, titles, reputation, clout, and physical accolades are your portable charger. The portable charger is useful, but it only has so much battery life, and when you start in this activity, you don’t have one. The only way you can consistently have a charge on your phone is to have a wall charger. You have to figure out what your wall charger is. When I need to charge myself or get re-inspired, I think about that kid, and all the people that will forever be effected by my message. This allows me to charge myself up, in and out of the round, and ALWAYS give 100% to that story and message.

In twenty years, I won’t immediately remember the title or the trophy that came with it, but I will ALWAYS remember that one-minute interaction with this kid. I only got to see the effects that my performance had on one person but started to imagine all the people I was able to help that I didn’t get to talk to. It’s one thing to hear people say you did a good job, or they liked your performance, but what’s even better is when people tell you that your performance changed them. 

When I think about this, I realize that I didn’t fail. In fact, I feel as though I walked away with more success than anyone because the story I had to tell, was bigger than myself. 

Since leaving the high school speech circuit, I have joined the college speech circuit with the Bradley University Speech Team (shameless plug, if you want to continue your journey with speech post-graduation, reach out to me, and we can talk about getting you to Bradley, or into a college program that is the best fit for you). I am learning new things every day, and I would be lying if I told you I never got frustrated with this activity. There have been many times when I just didn’t have the motivation or inspiration to work, which is totally natural. It’s OK to get frustrated with this activity, but how are you going to bring yourself back and plug in your charger, because anything less than 100% isn’t going to cut it, and if you really believe in your message, you owe it to everyone who could be changed by it, to give them everything you’ve got. 

In Praise of Crying-Renan Rocha

“The following codes have advanced to Quarterfinals in room 306; 212, 205, 228, 255, 219, 252”

I was number 230, my code wasn't called, and I was obviously upset.

My name is Renan. I am a student and a fellow Speech and Debater at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in NYC. I am a senior and have been doing Extemp for 4 years now. I have a confession, I have never broken at a national tournament. Now sure, this can be taken either as an embarrassment or something completely normal. I’ve been the Speech Team Co-President for a year, and I went to the George Mason Institute of Forensic camp over the summer before my Senior year. The past four years on my Speech & Debate Team I’ve come to realize the hard truth about Speech. When you sign that permission slip to go to a competition, you’re also signing away for your mental health to completely move out of your own control.

It was October 12th, 2018. We all go through the standard protocol of waking up extremely early before the tournament and putting our suits or dresses on and getting right to work. This tournament meant a lot to me because it was in my city. Yale was just a month ago and I was trying to start the speech season off with a bang. Throughout the day, I noticed everyone was extremely worried and frantic. In the morning, everyone was extremely happy to see their friends from different states. However, when it came to competition time for the extempers, a lot of them were worried about what was going to happen next. After breaks were posted I noticed a lot of cheering, sighing of relief from friends, and crying too. Some of them were crying because they broke, and some because they didn’t. Now it’s extremely normal for interpers, extempers, debaters, to cry over not breaking. Hey, I’ve done it numerous times as well. But I also realized the amount of stress and waves of depression hit kids that broke. Breaking doesn’t mean for a student that they are the happiest in the world, there's definitely going to be stress when a student does or even doesn’t break.

I’ve never realized until now how connected one's mental health is to speech. They do seem like different topics, however, they are ultimately closely connected. This past senior year, I have talked to numerous amount of competitors that have not been breaking to finals at every national tournament and the responses I’ve been getting have been similar in many ways. They cry. Some of them post about it on social media as a cry for help, but unfortunately, many take it as a joke or don’t care at all. Some try to talk to me about it or some don’t. Some hide it from their coaches and teammates or put a fake smile whenever they are at practice or at competitions. Speech and Debate and whatever is happening at home can definitely bring a toll on one's mental health and figure. Now I am definitely not saying that this happens to everyone, but competitors need to realize that everyone is human, and more people need to start asking if their friends or even strangers are okay. A lot of us have no clue what is going on with each other lives and the fact is there is a stigma to talk about mental health in speech is sad. A lot of competitors like to ignore it or talk about if they have too, however, this past year we have already seen competitors take their lives away either because of speech or what they have going on at home. Understand, how crying is cathartic. We shouldn’t be afraid of being upset and speaking out. Speech teaches teens to deal with disappointment. Just because you work hard, it doesn’t mean you're going to get an extrinsic reward.

With the number of tournaments that are left, competitors, judges, and even coaches need to talk to each other about mental health. The stigma that lays with mental health needs to be ripped apart and more people need to start talking before it's too late. Breaking shouldn’t be a priority always, going to away competitions shouldn’t be a priority when a students mental health is depleting each day. We should check in with each other more after breaks are posted or even during the competition. We need to treat our mental health like our extemp speeches, with caution and planning to move forward. If you are a competitor whose experiencing any such mental illness but is still competing every weekend, understand that you need to put yourself first than anything else. Cry it out, talk to someone. Your mental health isn’t something that you can just control, your friends and family are here to help you. Bottling it up won’t make a difference. You aren’t alone. You need to make those steps to keep moving forward.   

Breaking isn’t everything, even if you do or don’t break, look around you and speak like you do in your speeches. Have a crying circle with your friends, or just text them. I can probably assume that competition that they are prepping for can be put on hold for you. You matter much more than their speeches. Talking about your speeches is important, don’t get me wrong, but what's more important is how you and others are feeling.

Thanks for reading,

Renan Rocha


Anyone Can Wear a Mask-Jose Quinones

As a kid, I would always argue that the best power is invisibility.  With an illustrious record of mischief, the prospect of being able to do anything without being able to be held accountable or even be seen was an aspiration.  Yet as I grew up I gained the power myself and let me say, Into the Spiderverse makes invisibility a lot cooler than it actually is.

Once I got into 8th grade, my middle school had introduced a new speech and debate program, something my mom thought would be great for me to sign up for since I told her I might want to be a lawyer once.  As I took my first step into Speech and Debate and my classroom my invisibility activated. There was no possible way I could present in front of people or advocate for an idea that someone might disagree with, that just seemed impossible.  So I did “junior debate” and simply let my partner do all the work for me. In high school, this perfect scheme ran into two hiccups. Not only was “junior debate” not a thing in high school, but my partner had gone to a different school. I was alone and invisible in a place that constantly wanted to see me. I decided that I simply would fulfill my speech & debate credits quietly and not return sophomore year. I did Congress an event where I could easily hide in the sea of students and not even have to speak yet every mandatory tournament ending with no award, surrounded by my own overachieving classmates made me want to be more like them. Fleeing from the world of Congress I decided to make myself shown once more with one of the events that was the most out of my comfort zone: Extemporaneous Speaking.  As someone who is admittedly not used to being critiqued or wrong, becoming visible automatically translated to becoming vulnerable and as I got very simple and kind critiques on my first 48-second extemp speech the only advice I got was from myself. “I can do better”.

Throughout those last couple of months of freshman year, I stubbornly worked on trying to become the best extemper believing that the only way I could learn was through my own volition and capabilities.  Instead of invisible, I had become impenetrable, no critique would change how I would speak, and I suffered. Loss after loss accumulated until I simply had to watch my 3 classmates in their final round of novice states because I had dropped hard in prelims. Sophomore year, I stubbornly pushed forward becoming a pain for not only myself but also my captains who tried their hardest to help me. Each attempt reminded me more and more that I was neither where I wanted to be nor where the people supporting me wanted me to be.  My own superpower had very quickly become an ability to isolate myself from the world around me. While all the negative critiques and insults towards my extemp abilities could not get through my thick skin, neither could the positive ones and compliments. I was quickly becoming a lost cause.

I spent much of my sophomore year realizing that not only was my ability to speak deteriorating but so was my confidence. I was becoming more and more scared of trusting myself. I decided I just needed a trial by fire and went to as many national tournaments as I could. Turns out, I’m also shockingly fireproof. Dropping in prelims at every national tournament didn’t teach me this crazy life lesson to persevere through the issues and come out better on the other side. It simply showed me that I sucked.  Bronx, Glenbrooks, Berkeley and all I had to show was a dinky plate from Impromptu quarters at Berkeley. By the end of the year, the only thing I had to look forward to was our regionals tournament. By then, I had given up. I decided that regionals was my last tournament, so I’m would just cause trouble and accept the universe’s ranks. In those few rounds, I finally broke down that shell which had prevented me from succeeding. Between risky jokes and a repeat question, I had the best day of my life.

Following my fun-filled day at regionals, I realized something. I didn’t need to have some out of this world superpower to be a good extemper, I had to be myself. As cheesy as it sounds, I came to learn that Extemp isn’t about being the next Jacob Thompson or Arel Rende, it’s about transforming an argument into your own creative art piece. Once I stopped plagiarizing and started creating my own art I saw people loved my art. I got second at regionals and directly followed that up with semifinals at states. I went into junior year with a newfound passion, a passion to be superhuman. A superhuman who gave people a reason to care just as much as he did about issues. Through my ventures, I found both competitive success—finaling Bronx and winning Sunvite—and the true joys of extemp, a platform to be myself. I found my home in Extemp, and I think that’s what it’s all about.

Not everyone wants to be superhuman and not everyone has to be. Whether you prefer being invisible, fireproof, or impenetrable, everyone should find their reason. If there is one piece of advice I can deliver, it’s one that I definitely ripped off from Spider-Man: Anyone can wear the mask and be a superhero, just like anyone can give a speech and be a good extemper. The person behind that mask, however, is the person truly set to change the world, so make extemp your own.

Did You Hear That?-Sanjeev Vinodh

As an orator, I have orateded in front of many people. But the toughest crowd has never been the audience or even the judges in a round. The toughest crowd has always been warmups in the middle of a circle of speech and debaters, dressed in suits and sleep deprived at 7 am on a cold Sunday morning.

Warmups are hard to explain to those of non-speech and debate origin. Similar to warming up before a game (but cooler?), warmup leaders yell chants filled with oddly phrased rhymes and outdated pop culture references at a circle of pubescent teenagers engaging in acts of frenzied repetition and manic body percussion in order to wake ourselves up before rounds. Warmups are a big deal at Leland High School (CA) because we’re one of the largest teams in the country, so our circle is 150 people, more than most audiences. My warmup (a tradition at Leland since years before I joined) begins with a covert nod at my best friend, who proceeds to kick the nearest trash can with all the rage of the habitually sleep deprived.

Me: Did you hear that? (Circle: Hear what?)

It sounded kinda like a boom. (A boom?)

No, more like a boom...chicka boom. (A boom chicka boom?)

Nooo, more like a boom...chicka rocka...chicka rocka chicka boom. (Uh)

The warmup then descends into choruses of ‘I heard a boom chicka boom’ with varying intensity, culminating in a “HEY LELAND, HOW DO YOU FEEL? (I FEEL GOOD OH I FEEL SO GOOD, UNH) *thrust*”. This raises a number of questions. Did the kick even sound like a boom? Not really, but we got used to it. Was my coach okay with that ending? Not really, but she got used to it. And most importantly, why? At first, it seemed obvious: hype. There’s something unbelievably inspirational about being silly alongside your teammates. But looking back, warmups meant so much more: they taught me about my team, myself, and being a good person.


My fascination with the boom began even before I came to Leland, during my freshman and sophomore year on the Neuqua Valley Speech team in Illinois. The ‘Boom Chicka Boom’ warmup (as we so creatively called it) was reserved for Anthony Zucco, captain of Humorous Duet Acting. No one could do it quite like he did. He would jump around, dance, yell in people’s faces, and drum on the host school’s desks all without missing a single word. But it wasn’t just Zucco that made the warmup so fun. When 90 high schoolers choose to spend their weekends speaking to strangers at schools they’ve never heard of, it is inevitable that they become as close as family. That circle was my family. I would spend every evening at speech until the coaches left at 6, watching varsity practice, joking around, and making friends in a new place. And the efforts paid off too. I won my first tournament ever in the novice category, got 2nd at the next, and 6th after that.

And then I didn’t break for three years.

I didn’t mind. Speech was something I did for the fun and for the people, so winning was never my first priority. Ballots still stung, doing my best without breaking was frustrating, but warmups every Sunday morning reminded me that while we may speak alone in round, we do not compete alone. Right from my first tournament ever to my last performance on the Nationals stage, it's the team that has been with me. No one sees the group Google doc edit sessions when my friends attempt to make my ‘jokes’ funny. No one sees the late night practice pods right before State Qualifiers, or even the hype sessions of junk food and crude humor in between rounds. But that's what speech is about. Whether in the warmup circle or our social circle, it’s the relationships we create with our teammates, our audience, and then out in the world that stay with us for life. Not the trophies or tournaments or pieces, but the people.

Speech has taught me much. Way too much to outline in a single post. But one thing I am still working on to this day is something I learnt from warmups: authenticity. We are more ourselves than any other time when screaming tongue twisters in the freezing cold at an unfairly early hour, but this vulnerability needs to extend to every aspect of our lives, especially in round. My coach, Mr. Ickes, once told me that the greatest compliment an orator can receive is ‘I believe you’. And it’s stuck with me since because this is so true for all of us: in interp, your audience needs to believe the story you weave, in debate, your arguments. But with oratory, it’s not the acting or evidence that needs to be believed. It’s who you are as a person. And in a world saturated with Snapchat filters and speed dating, being forced to be yourself is such a powerful thing. I still cannot comprehend how incredible it is that we get to speak in front of strangers about any issue we deem important. And our audience has to listen. And we get applause for it. AND we get to experience it every single weekend. If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is. So don’t take any of this for granted, because this platform is a privilege. Respect it.


Transitioning into college, literally all my friends quit speech. 'It was fun while it lasted,' they said, 'and now it's time to move on.' But whether it be writing oratory curriculum for Suit Up & Speak, creating an undergraduate course on the Art of Persuasion, or competing in the college forensics circuit, speech is still an important part of my life. And why not? In another memorable quote from Mr. Ickes, ‘a good speaker is a good person who speaks well’, and this activity doesn’t just teach us to speak well, it literally makes us better people. Yes, cliche, but cliches are cliche for a reason. Every single weekend, we are faced with difficult choices. Choosing to support our teammates even when we don't break. Choosing to treat competitors just as we treat our own. Winning and choosing not to be complacent. Losing but choosing to move on. Speech has seen me at my best and my worst. I've received kindness from countless people, and hurt too many in return. Gotten opportunities I was lucky to have, and let them pass me by. Friendships have been made, lessons have been learnt, but above all, I've found something I care about.


So moving into 2019, a year of new beginnings, I know that speech is here to stay. I won’t stop putting off homework to Skype coach novices, I won’t stop memorizing Persuasives the day before competition, and I definitely won’t stop paying my sleep deprived team a surprise visit at 7 am on a cold Sunday morning to tell them that I heard a boom chicka boom. Because the debt I owe to this community won't be repaid any time soon.

With love and ever grateful,
Sanjeev

Persuasion, Perseverance, and Performance-Tanner Jones

After coming to terms with the sad fact that I would never be a varsity baseball catcher, I opted to find a new extracurricular activity to start my sophomore year. Debate was appealing (I argued incessantly with my siblings), and after attending an impressive information meeting and tearing a page from my Dad’s checkbook, I was officially registered for Edina High School’s Lincoln Douglas debate team. 

While I liked the concept of debate, I at first felt out of place on the team. Having spent most of my pre-debate years playing rec league baseball, hours of video games, and fishing in Northern Minnesota, I could rarely relate to my conscientious and studious teammates, who were considered to be among the smartest students at my high school. To make matters worse, debate was a serious time commitment and required intense research. At the time, my befuddled friends asked, “why would you sign up for something that gives you extra homework?” 

I didn’t have a good answer.

Thus, fed up with an activity I barely liked and didn’t understand, I told my Dad I was quitting. He urged me to at least attend the first tournament, I thankfully did, and fell in love with debate. Lincoln Douglas taught me how to find truth. I won rounds when I discredited my opponent’s evidence, poked holes in their argumentative links, and outweighed their impacts. When I lost, I had failed to do these things and the in-round truth flowed to my opponent. 

Moreover, debate taught me about nuance. Most issues, I learned, are much different than they initially appear. This knowledge informed my research. When reading critically, subtleties became more valuable to me than generalizations. Debate also changed my thinking. Understanding the intricacies of arguments taught me how arguments operate and, more importantly, how they interact with one another. It became easier to separate falsehoods from truths and confidently take the correct side on hot-button issues.

Plus, as I learned, everything is up for debate in round. Even the strongest cases could be taken down, even the most compelling ideas could fail. As such, I learned that no one ideological framework is infallible, that no ideologue has all the answers. The world became more complex and my understanding of it deepened.

After the debate season ended in early December, my coach suggested that I try extemporaneous speaking in the spring. I was hesitant. In my mind, speech was an activity for performers, a title I felt uncomfortable with. Luckily, I gave it a try. I quickly learned that extemp was different than I imagined. Not only did it strengthen my research and critical thinking skills from debate, it also expanded my horizons—forcing me to develop a fundamental understanding of economics, foreign policy, and international affairs. Extemp taught me where to read and, more importantly, who to read. In this way, I learned how to learn.

I also grew to value the performative aspects of public speaking. Tasked every Saturday with persuading judges that I had the answers to the nation and world’s problems, I had to learn to deliver complex arguments in a digestible manner. Properly placed anecdotes and analogies, I found, helped people see truth more than the data alone ever would. Striking a balance—conveying the facts and explaining what they meant in real terms—allowed me to find competitive success.

Finally, extemp taught me how to generate and defend a thesis. I learned to distill general principles from broad sets of data and phrase said principles as durable theses. The quality of the thesis, I noticed, determined the quality of the speech. My worst speeches offered superficial answers and could only muster disparate supporting points. My best speeches provided overarching theses and preempted reasonable responses with cohesive points. Rather than limiting my answers to exclamations and simple nouns (yes, no, increase, decrease), I learned to offer my judges a complete answer to the question (yes, because…). Learning to create a thesis enhanced my capacity for truth-seeking, a skill valuable far beyond speech and debate.

I continued to compete in speech and debate the following two seasons before I graduated from high school. I now am again a novice, competing in collegiate policy as freshman. I recommend speech and debate to all students with the opportunity, it continues to me more fulfilling and valuable to me than anything else I do. 

Extemporaneous Evolution-Danielle Piccoli

After blankly gawking at three questions comprised of remote issues I knew virtually nothing about, I hesitantly scribbled one down on a piece of loose leaf and began “prepping” my first extemp speech. At the end of the thirty minutes, I was left with a two and a half point speech and an undermined self esteem; I stood unwilling to deliver the speech. I reluctantly shuffled my feet in a distinct box step pattern for barely four of the seven required speaking minutes, and I sat down at the nearest desk, feeling utterly discouraged. My teammate helped alleviate my embarrassment by explaining her personal speech related mishaps, as well as breaking down the structure of a speech and giving me tips on how to be poised while delivering one. As we left the meeting, she encouraged me to come back the following Thursday.

The sense of community offered by the speech team motivated me to keep attending meetings.  My speeches soon began to exceed four minutes and I learned how to be a more eloquent speaker. Recognizing one’s ability to command a room while delivering a speech caused me to reevaluate my hand gesture movements and vocal variation. Every speech was an opportunity to assess my growth as a speaker and consider what skills to focus on. Meetings filled with ample practice speeches, drills, and content lectures helped me understand the benefits of such an arbitrary activity.

I learned that extemp was a platform where I could take rhetoric surrounding world issues and deliver meaningful solutions, articulating my own opinions and educating anyone who was willing to listen. The endless preparation conditioned me to become a critical thinker. Afternoons spent cycling between a variety of news sources further developed my passion to explore current events, ultimately prompting me to seek a role in mitigating these pertinent problems. After all, my favorite part of an extemp speech has always been the statement of significance. It is the one line I can unfailingly use to make a compelling argument about why an issue that appeared trivial has profound implications for different aspects of our society.

One of the most fulfilling experiences over the past four years has been working with our team’s underclassmen. My friends and I hoped to inspire them to develop a strong fascination for extemp, as well as leave a lasting legacy of unconditional support. We explained how to have organized substructure in every speech and reiterated theories regarding economics and world dynamics. Watching them grow as speakers was extremely rewarding, as we were able to cheer them on at every tournament they attended. This collaboration helped foster a caring atmosphere on our team.

The majority of my weekends over the past few years have included late night research “parties,” sing-along sessions on buses, and runs to CVS to purchase every caffeinated good available. This unconventional sequence of events became a pre-tournament ritual for my teammates and me. The solidarities created due to a shared interest with current events created a supportive community, unparalleled by any activity I have ever participated in. Our team always exchanges smiles in the prep room as we all nervously wait for the round to start. There is always someone to offer advice after a subpar speech or provide encouraging eye contact during a tournament outround. These friendships also transcend town and state borders. A short conversation about how a round went acts as a catalyst toward a long-lasting friendship. Everyone is so open minded to meeting others that these types of conversations appear instinctive. Some of the most vivid memories I have from competing are intense games of tag, amusing rounds of Cards Against Humanity, and loud jam sessions in the prep room.

While the community aspect of extemp has been rewarding, myself and other girls have found it difficult to fully immerse ourselves into the activity because of the “bro culture” that is ubiquitous. We need to be exceedingly aware about parts of our delivery, and regardless of that, there is still a tendency to view females as less confident relative to our male counterparts. After a female teammate and I finished our final speeches at a tournament last month, the only feedback we received from our male teammate was that neither of us were able to “command the room,” whereas he began to praise males in the round for appearing overly confident. Our ability to articulate arguments eloquently has consistently been undermined by sexism.

With a finite number of tournaments left, I cannot help reflecting on the past four years of speech and debate. Quiet freshman year me would have never imagined I would become so engaged in an extracurricular activity, especially one that centered around public speaking. I will always be appreciative of my decision, though. Through my four years of high school, extemp has helped me become an informed and confident public speaker, while introducing me to some of my closest friends.

From a Girl Once Afraid of Failure-Jacqueline Hatch

I was forced into Speech and Debate in eighth grade from a scheduling mishap and haven’t looked back since. A clear orator since my introduction into the activity, I began to find my haven in public speaking. The rush of adrenaline that accompanies stepping into a suit and slipping on a pair of heels before a tournament is probably comparable to skydiving or preparing to dive into a large bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream.

Throughout my time competing in speech, particularly public address events, I’ve become accustomed to the fact that there is no such thing as “always doing well” at a tournament. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s impossible to consistently win; honestly, I have left tournaments with a trophy in hand feeling like total crap about myself. How I could have said a line differently in my conclusion. How completely and totally awkward a hand gesture was during my last round. How I asked for time signals in a round where no one else needed them. Some tournaments, no matter the literal outcome, I just felt like a failure. But I’ve learned to accept that it is totally okay to feel like that.

I have always been incredibly terrified of failure. Whenever inquired about my biggest fear, I never used to say clowns or heights; my answer was always disappointing myself and those around me. Unconsciously, this mindset always inhibited me from trying new things. I always stuck within my comfort zone, carefully protected by my already-established notions of what I knew I was good at.

But speech and debate has done the one thing everyone and everything in my life beforehand had failed to do: it broke me out of that comfort zone. I started out competing in Public Forum Debate largely because working with a partner was the perfect reassurance to allow me to test the waters of debate. If I failed, I never failed alone! Even after realizing that debate was no place for me, I jumped headfirst into Duo Interpretation with the same mentality. Honestly, I never thought I would branch out further; duo was the first event I ever considered myself halfway decent at and I felt little desire to explore other events.

However, something clicked during the summer before my sophomore year. I attended speech camp for the first time, and, surrounded by a community of people so dedicated to competition and completely and utterly supportive, I felt safe to explore different aspects of speech that I never considered before. That summer, I wrote my first Original Oratory speech.

From sophomore year on, I haven’t considered myself scared of failing, and I credit a large portion of that to the incredible speech and debate community. Most speech competitors and coaches I’ve had the pleasure of meeting are supportive beyond belief. The steady stream of applause that follows the end of a speech, no matter how unprepared I felt giving it. The booming cheers and overabundance of hugs after breaks are announced. The shouts of total support and joy during awards. I’m sitting here literally smiling while writing this because of how purely happy these memories are. And the thing is: they are not just memories. They are features at every single tournament occurring across the country each weekend. What I enjoy most about the community is that this level of encouragement never falters! Everyone, from a first-time novice to even the most experienced of competitors, is on both the giving and receiving ends of this total goodness.

The first time I ever made it to a real final round was at a small tournament called Nova Titan in Original Oratory my sophomore year. Obviously, I was terrified; it was only my third tournament competing in oratory and I was in a round full of experienced varsity competitors! But the one thing I will never forget about that day is how about twenty minutes before the round started, another competitor approached me. He handed me his headphones blaring with a Childish Gambino song and said “Here, listen to this. Just let your nerves go and get hype.” Just looking at the fact that a well-known senior competitor cared enough to offer some help and support to a struggling fifteen year-old before her first final round totally solidified my respect for the entirety of the speech community. I knew there was no failing from that point on.

However, the largest reason I no longer consider myself afraid to fail is me. Throughout my years of speech, the most important thing I’ve understood is that I decide the round. It doesn’t matter if a round is filled entirely with novice competitors or stacked with national finalists; I know I have the capability and power to perform the same way each time. The development of my now-strong sense of self assurance is probably the best thing to ever happen to me, as I’ve began to approach every aspect of my life with this mindset. Whether in relation to school or my social life, I have fully grasped the concept that I’m freakin fantastic! Self love all the way!

I’ve gotten some horrible ballots and feedback, but, honestly, who hasn’t? My approach to speech at this point is to just take things as they go. It is never a good idea to be cocky, but there is a large difference between arrogance and understanding your talent and self-worth as a competitor. It’s taken me a long time to grasp this concept with a sense of acceptance, but my philosophy on competing in speech can be summed up in three words total: YOU DO YOU!

If someone asked me what my biggest fear is today, entering my fifth year of competition, I would no longer say failure; I would most definitely say not getting into college (let’s hope that actually doesn’t happen)! But in all honesty, I don’t think “failing” exists in speech and debate. I’ve had my fair share of tournaments walking away with rankings comprised of mostly 6’s, but I’ve also had my fair share of final rounds and trophies. I have no regrets about my competitive history, and it feels amazing to look back and realize that I’ve accomplished so much more than my novice-self could imagine.

I have a request: next time at a tournament, try the “self love” approach. Don’t focus too much on who is in your round. Don’t convince yourself that giving a judge a handshake or impressing them with a dazzling suit is the only way to give yourself a leg up against your competitors. Instead, focus on you! If you’re like me, get yourself a venti iced green tea lemonade and birthday cake pop from Starbucks and blast some Lil Uzi in between rounds. I am no longer afraid of failing in speech and debate, and I wholeheartedly credit  “Do What I Want” by Lil Uzi with that (just kidding, but it never hurts!).

I Just Want Them to Remember Me-Zac Jacobson

“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

-Lin-Manuel Miranda

I remember my first ever debate tournament like the back of my hand. I was in seventh grade. I had just turned 13. I stood at the apex of the classroom that morning, grasping a legal pad in one hand, desperation in the other. My mom had tied my ruby red JCPenney tie into a Half Windsor knot that morning to accompany the black suit I used to circulate the middle school bar/bat-mitzvah circuit. The legislation still lingers in my head: A Bill to Aid Haiti. My first ever, 2-minute Congress speech was like riding a bike. Made out of spikes. On fire.

Not one judge ranked Senator Jacobson that day. For the week that followed, I was devastated.

“I don’t even know why I decided to take debate in the first place!” I exclaimed, my breath still smelling of Matcha Powder from the Frappucino my coach bought me in order to cheer me up.

Contrary to most debaters, my debate career started by force. I went to a charter school until eighth grade, and in an attempt to expose their students to the world around them, I was mandated to take either public speaking or speech and debate. Yet, six years later, even as the public speaking requirement has gone away, debate remains attached to my hip.

I don’t remember what influenced me to choose speech and debate.

Six years of tournaments has flown over my head. I am writing this article at 11:49 PM on a Wednesday night. I write this article with the “Swedish” setting on full blast on my living room massage chair. I still can’t believe my parents had enough disposable income at one point to buy a massage chair. But I digress.

I sparked into high school debate having been slightly experienced in Speech and Congress. As soon as my first high school Congress tournament was complete, I immediately knew my primary event for the rest of my debate career.

“I am never doing a round of interp again!”

I write this four years later contemplating the delivery of one of my most powerful lines in my senior DI. It wasn’t until sophomore year I realized that my passion was not Congress, but for Interp, which is still my main event today.

As senior year comes and goes, I’ve realized that my speech and debate experience is not characterized by how many trophies I win, how many times I break, or how many NSDA points I have. It will be defined by the platform it has given me to have my voice heard. My top priority will be the spirit of this activity, how we as students, are impactful through our voices.

It’s a sheer coincidence that my DI this year is about a 100-year-old man reflecting on his life and the legacy that he has on the people around him. This man, named Scaramouche Jones, puts on his final performance as a circus clown, and goes through his entire life as nothing significant, until he realizes that his gratitude and actions never affect himself. They affect everyone else around him.

My favorite line: “50 years to build the clown, 50 years to play him. But I make people laugh. And I… I feel good.”

It was at Interprod, the nation’s leading interpretation camp, this summer that it finally hit me that senior year was approaching. It hit me that no longer would I say “maybe next year.“ It hit me that no longer would I say “I still have three years to compete.” My Snapchat Story would now be a picture of my reflection in the mirror of whatever room of whatever hotel I was staying in, a slight smirk on my face adorned with the words “Last Time at [insert tournament name here]” covering my face and a complementing geotag. It was in Boston that I was hit with the reality that my legacy was almost complete.

And I say almost because I am still a senior. I still have one final push. One last ride, per say.

During Interprod, I had one of the most memorable individual sessions with an amazing coach, Mr. C. Ryan Joyce of Phoenix Country Day School in Arizona. It was during this session that I was notified that C. Ryan and I’s senior years were related in terms of our piece selection. His Duo Interpretation senior year was also about a performer putting on his final performance. And in his piece, his character was asked what he wants out of his final act. The character responds with,

“I just want them to remember me.”

At the end of the day, as my six years of speech and debate wanes down, I think of anything I’d change in the three years prior to senior year. And not to sound cliche again, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Of course, we all do things on the circuit that probably weren’t the wisest of choices. I, for sure, have had a fair share of questionable actions. But, when push comes to shove, I’ve lived my legacy in speech and debate.

And I feel good.

The Speech and Debate Olympics-Ben Xiang

It was a meme in high school, but I really think that Speech and Debate should be considered a sport. We probably go through about 10,000 gallons of gatorade hydrating after spitting straight fire in a round, lift 10,000 lbs of luggage flying and busing across the country, and read 10,000 pages worth of film/prep before every single tournament. It comes with all the perks of athletes: the exhilaration of finally breaking, the awesome after parties, and holding up the 1st place trophy like a real champ. But like the great athlete Lebron James once said, “People will hate you, rate you, shake you, and break you. But how strong you stand is what makes you.”

It isn’t all roses in this seemingly idealistic activity with educated young minds engaging in civil discourse over nuanced topics. Through 200+ rounds of debate and watching my teammates over 4 years, I can suitably say that Speech and Debate will test you to the limit. Forget 5 hour late night prep sessions everyday for weeks before a national tournament only to not break by one speaker point or by having the judge vote for the wrong team. Forget arguments with teammates, oftentimes close friends, which result in breakups, hurt feelings, and resentment that sometimes lasts for months. Forget being called “a stuttering bum” by your coach and crying your eyes out after a practice round. This is nothing, merely the preparation, the bulking, training, and strengthening you need for when you actually hit the hardwood in a real game.

We wake up at 6 am, eat a healthy meal of energy drinks and cheerios, and begin to run the marathon that is a Speech and Debate tournament. You learn how to navigate the political landscape: which prep groups to “be in” on, which teams and schools are your “enemies”, and which judges are undesirable. It gets toxic: teams accusing each other of cheating and evidence violations, trash talking between the victors and losers of a round, and backhanded compliments that somehow tear you down even more. In such an environment, one can’t help but be physically and mentally exhausted.

But in spite of all this, I will tell everyone this: DO SPEECH AND DEBATE. Looking past the implied strengths of becoming a great communicator, having public confidence, and developing analytical skills, you find an activity where you can meet some of the greatest people on earth. Find yourself a debate gang that will gas you up before tournaments, the SATs, and asking out a girl. A group who will stick with you through the toughest rounds and come with 3 am coffee to keep you awake. A group that will talk about the topic for 1 hour, debate Kant and Marx for another two, and play basketball (badly) for the last hour. My best friends from high school have all do debate, have done debate, or have crossed a debater badly enough to know how powerful Speech and Debate really can be.

And in the midst of the hectic game, you see some beautiful moments of sportsmanship. You’ll see teams concede an octos round at the TOC to engage in true discourse on structural violence and a team throw a round and hug their opponents who had just lost a close friend. People have the guts to call out fault when they see it, not bluntly fighting it with fists, but with their words. I watched a novice teammate confront a nationally-ranked senior debater head-on for running an argument that promoted rape culture.

This was my last season and I am officially retiring from the game. I wasn’t anything special, not a TOC, NSDA champ, or Olympic gold medalist and certainly not nearly as good as any of my other friends. But I don’t regret anything, not one moment. I don’t regret getting knocked out of an important tournament because my entire team sang and wished happy birthday to me right after. I don’t regret the lost hours of sleep (well kind of, but not too much), for they were spent having the deepest conversations of my life in a random motel room with my closest buddies. I am no Jordan, Ali, Phelps, or Bolt. My name is Ben and I am a skinny 5’9 guy who found not only my voice, but myself, through Speech and Debate.  

From your wannabe NBA star,

Ben Xiang


The State of teachspeech

Dear teachspeech family,

Over thirteen months ago, Lekha Sunder and I had an idea on Facebook Messenger (where all good ideas start). We wanted to make a wave in the speech & debate community: to turn public speaking from a sometimes inaccessible after school activity into a mandatory part of each student’s academic career. We shot for the moon, but I’m unbelievably proud that we landed on the best star.

teachspeech has experienced a lot of change in the past year. We started as a lobbying organization and became just an educational initiative. We’ve had a number of catalytic leaders both join and exit our organization. We wanted to change the lives of American students, and in the process, have expanded to Afghanistan. 

In all of this change, our team’s commitment to amplifying student voices has not wavered, and I feel that we have a lot to celebrate. By the end of this October, teachspeech will have organized over thirty Dialogues workshops in ten states, created an intercultural debate exchange in Afghanistan, and published the stories of countless inspirational speech & debate alumni. Nearly 7,000 people have engaged with teachspeech digitally or through our programming. Nearly 7,000 student voices have been amplified.

I wanted to pen this brief note to both celebrate these past accomplishments and give some auspicious news for the future. First, our core team of directors has seen a wonderful metamorphosis, with Matthew Yekell and Connie Liang replacing Nikhil Dharmaraj and Haris Hosseini as Dialogues Director and Media Director, respectively. I’m so proud to know each of these speech & debate superstars, and I know that this change will bring new life to teachspeech. Beyond that, I’ve been invited to represent teachspeech at the Reagan Leadership Summit, teaching a workshop on Political Discussion in the 21st Century. Finally, stay tuned for various publicity and website updates over the next few weeks! 

Thank you for all of your support over the past year. Your shares, reactions, and participation in programming have warmed my heart and helped us truly find our voice as an organization. 

Yours in power,

Christopher Maximos

National President & Founder

teachspeech

Still Standing-Clara Enders

I walked into the Speech and Debate information session during my first-ever week of high school with no expectations. I had gone on a whim with a few of my friends, and I just wanted to see the possibilities that existed. Frankly, I never imagined myself as a public speaker: I was small, shy, and afraid of speaking in class, let alone in front of big groups of people. Inspired by my eighth-grade speech teacher, I decided I would push myself to attend at least one meeting. 

Deciding how I wanted to participate in forensics was no easy task. There were so many options, but I decided I wanted to do either Extemporaneous Speaking or Lincoln Douglas debate. The more I thought about it, the more interested in extemp I was, but my friends all wanted to do LD. I didn’t make a choice until the first team meeting where, at the last second, I decided I would follow my interest and try extemp, while my friends left for LD. As a freshman, being away from my group made me feel so vulnerable, and yet, before my speech career had even really begun, I was beginning to distinguish myself as an individual, and explore what truly fascinated me. 

It wasn’t until my first tournament, where I noticed that most extemp competitors were male, that I truly felt intimidated. Yet this adversity wasn’t all bad. The bro-culture brought the few girls on our team together in solidarity, and I soon found myself forming stronger friendships than I’d ever had before.

The benefits of participating in extemp didn’t stop there. Gradually, I also began to find my voice, and learned to be unafraid of going head-to-head against the boys. I’d counter their loud arguments with my own, more soft-spoken facts, and over time, I began winning rounds. Even when I didn’t win, I would carefully read over the judges’ critiques, taking stock of my strengths and addressing my weaknesses. As I learned to use constructive criticism to my advantage, I became a solid performer, as well as a more confident person.

I competed for all four years of high school, but my Senior season was definitely the highlight. I had the opportunity to coach our team’s Sophomores, and twice a week, I helped coordinate meetings and lesson plans, and I checked up on my Sophomores’ progress regularly. Watching them succeed and grow as speakers was extremely fulfilling— as an underclassman, I took comfort in knowing that help was available when I needed it. I wanted to leave a legacy of support as well, and I hope I was successful in doing this. 

As a Senior, preparing to leave speech was a conflicting transition for me. After four years of competition, I felt like I had contributed to the community, but at the same time, there was still so much I wanted to achieve! My “speech career” boiled down to 46 tournaments in 12 states, and roughly 220 rounds. However, I know this is not what I will remember from the activity. I’m going to treasure the bus rides, inside jokes, numerous cringeworthy moments, and friendships that defy state borders. What I love about speech, and forensics in general, are the people involved, and maintaining these friendships has been a great way to remember the good times I had. Last summer, I worked at the George Mason Institute of Forensics, and I met an entirely new speech community. I loved getting to coach and work with people from outside of my high school because I got to learn a variety of new, different ways to approach extemp.  Again, I love being a support for the students I coached, because I feel like I’m helping to leave the activity better than I found it. 

Throughout high school, my Saturdays involved waking up while it was still dark out, putting on a suit, and running out the door to catch the bus to a tournament. Yet, my transformation wasn’t complete until I did one last thing: put on a pair of high-heeled shoes. True, they helped make me look and feel taller than my five-foot-zero stature, but they did more for me besides that. Each time I slipped into my pumps, I was reminded that I was “stepping up” to take on the challenges of competition. However, when I was preparing to leave for college in mid-August, my speech outfits were absent from my packing list. I may not be competing in college, but I use the lessons I learned from extemp in other ways. I can form arguments and write quickly, I am a confident public speaker, and a news-reading, well-informed person (and first-time voter this fall, too!). It took my time in speech to believe in myself, become a leader, and dress for the part. These days, I find that even when I’m not wearing my high heels, I’m still standing a little taller. 

Slam Dunk Speaker-Kyle Wang

For many years—more than I’m willing to admit—I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I spent every weekday night in my front yard weaving between orange cones, pretending I was LeBron or Carmelo or, every once in a while, Yao Ming. And on the weekends I traveled: my dad and I drove all over California for basketball tournaments.

Naturally, when my parents dragged me to my first speech and debate practice in sixth grade, I wasn’t exactly excited. I didn’t hate it—I was never really shy about using my voice—but I would’ve preferred to have been on a basketball court. So, consciously or unconsciously, I made a compromise: I referenced Michael Jordan in virtually every impromptu speech I gave and used canned basketball AGDs.

Unsurprisingly, an obsession with professional basketball prepares you quite poorly for the speech and debate world. I could barely fumble my way through a memorized speech, let alone one with limited prep about current affairs. I also really didn’t know what I was talking about: I couldn’t have told you the difference between Ethiopia and Egypt if I tried. Worst of all, I overcompensated for my lack of knowledge by trying to make myself appear smarter. I soon replaced the names of basketball players with SAT Vocab words and said things like “violated fundamental Keynesian macroeconomic principles.”

In short, I sucked when I first started.

But I kept working. Slowly, I began to learn the basic principles which govern current affairs. I learned about taxes, the military, social issues; I learned about things and places and people I had no idea I was supposed to know or care about. There were many moments where I felt like a mad genius who had solved global conflicts through intricate diplomatic theory; there were many more moments where I felt like a complete idiot for thinking I could solve a civil war in 37 minutes.

My father coached me patiently through all of it. He listened to every mediocre speech I gave and sent me questions he found while combing through the interwebs. When I won, he pushed me to keep working; when I lost—and I lost many, many times—he still drove with me to spectate each final round I had failed to make, even if that meant getting up at 5 AM and eating a boiled egg for breakfast. And, gradually, I began improving.

My big moment came during junior year when I, by some miraculous chance, made a deep run at Nationals. My dad was with me that year, and the day before finals, he took me to see the Civil Rights Museum. It was raining that day, and we parked in a fenced-off lot by an old church across the street.

I didn’t understand why he’d brought me there at that specific moment, but I’d reached the age where I’d learned to just shut up and go with it whenever my dad dragged me out on an impromptu excursion during a tournament of some kind. I figured we’d get soul food after anyway, and I’d still have plenty of time to stress about finals.

It’s hard to describe what I felt as I walked through the museum. I was humbled, undoubtedly, as I fleshed out the stories I’d learned during Black History Month during elementary school. But part of me also left feeling angry and incomplete, frustrated by the half-truths that I, like so many others, had learned about the promises of liberty and justice for all.

I began to understand, then, why my parents had dragged me to that practice all those years ago. They didn’t want to crush my dreams of becoming a professional basketball player (they figured I’d come around soon enough) or to mold me into a Chinese Barack Obama. They wanted me to learn to use my voice, to tell my story, and, more importantly, learn about the millions of stories out in the world that I’d never imagined before. They wanted me to win, yes, but above all else to care about people and their stories, whether I was talking about social inequality or visiting a little pocket of history.

And that single visit captures everything I loved about my time in speech and debate. I had the incredible privilege of traveling across the country for tournament after tournament, but above all else I had the opportunity to spend time with people who were willing to fly out to the strangest, loneliest of places to share their stories with me—including my own father, whose story I heard in bits and pieces while we were sitting together on airplanes or long car rides on rainy Sunday mornings.

Many, many years ago, when I still thought I could be a professional basketball player, I idolized LeBron James. I wanted to be able to see the court like him, to blow past defenders like a tank with a ballerina’s grace.

I quit basketball freshman year, but I still wouldn’t mind if I turned out like LeBron. He is, after all, fighting for the very social change so many extempers and debaters talk about in round after endless round, speech after endless speech.

And I’ve learned after all those years of speech and debate, that that fight for change—to me at least—matters so much more than what happens on a basketball court.

Tricks Up His Sleeve-Elijah Rojas

In my favorite quotation, Helen Keller teaches us: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” The essence of adventure stems from change, and change will occur throughout your life, with or without your consent. While adapting to change is often difficult, over the course of the last four years, I have found an exorbitant amount of solace in knowing that, in this department, I have an advantage over most people. Something up my sleeve that has gifted me the strength and individual capacity required to impress just about anyone I come into contact with, (most recently the CEO of a multi-million dollar company.) Change is something I have the ability to embrace and fearlessly enjoy. That being said, to effectively explain my somewhat secret advantage when approaching life’s adventure, I must provide a foundational understanding of where it all comes from.

While trekking through my high school adventure, I found safety in school. Not only do I love learning, but when life drove me from my “home”, I always found respite in room 233, my Competitive Debate classroom. It is in this classroom that I found my cheat codes for success in life. Debate has been the most influential activity I have had the blessing of participating in. While I was provided countless adventures in my 7 years of Boy Scouts, participation in DECA, Mock Trial, Youth Court, employment experiences, and countless other activities, Debate stands out. Through Debate, yes, I was given a voice, but that barely scratches the surface of what it has done for me and so many others.

Through Debate, I learned how to speak for others, giving a voice to those who need one far more than I. Through Debate, I found professionalism in my presentation, dress, and mannerisms. These professional skills have inarguably been what has gotten me hired to multiple jobs with hiring requirements far exceeding my resume’s tool belt. Through Debate I gained perspective of the real world. I acquired an understanding of the endless suffering happening world-wide, and more importantly, what can be done anywhere in the world to help reduce it. With Debate I was able to learn skills of adaptability that frequently leave perspective peers and superiors in awe. Through Debate I was introduced to philosophy which has been pivotal to my personal development and the founding of my ethics. Through Debate I learned how to think critically, examine logistics, and research like a champion. Debate has shaped me, through and through.

I never imagined that I would attend a university without a popular Collegiate Debate Team. I spent high school expecting to study at Missouri State University or West Kentucky University. I barely considered universities with smaller Debate programs. I have spent 50+ hours a week doing Debate prep since I was 14. I loved every minute of it. Yet, this year, I cut that number closer to 10, and have been branching my passions away from the activity. Having been lucky enough to experience Debate through my high school career, I have found that I no-longer feel the need for a Debate team to feel content. I am okay anywhere this world throws me because Debate injected me with the values it has to give, and they are always in my repertoire ready to be pulled out at the first sign of a threat. I will never be a competitor in any Debate program again, and because of Debate, I am okay with that.

My passion for Debate truly gave me sight. It allowed me see the world around myself, and opportunities in my immediate reality. Yet, as high school winds down, I also see that I have been without a vision of my future other than in Law, which I simply do not enjoy. (Debate kept me from sinking three years and tens of thousands into law school too.) While Debate has always been my home, while I will remain involved in supporting my local Debate teams, and while I will always love the activity that was there for me, I have decided to listen to fate. The world has been trying to show me that a stagnant “home” is simply not where I am meant to be any longer.

I have learned that if I am not uncomfortable, and constantly shrowding myself with change, I am not progressing my personal development as efficiently as I could be. I have learned that the trick is— if you begin to get comfortable with where you are, you need to run. Run toward adventure. On the other side of adventure is nothing but a better you.

With my desire to expand in conjunction with my recent discovery of just how many opportunities Debate has provided me, I possess the vision to confidently change the trajectory of my future. 

I am comfortable knowing that I will be successful in this life. 

What can I say? I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.

When Rhetoric Has Become a Reality-Ashika Jalagam

Nearly 3 years ago, I walked into my principal’s office and suggested that the school start a debate team. After 6 months of dozens of meetings and countless explanations that debate wasn’t just between two presidential candidates, I was finally given the chance to compete for my school. Throughout my life, I have been a relatively shy person who kept my thoughts and feelings to myself. When I initially brought the idea of a debate team to the attention of my school, I was honestly really unsure about my own potential to be successful as a debater and unaware of where this new road would take me. After the first few meetings with the administration, I was ready to walk away. Today, I am so thankful I didn’t.

The largest fear I had when joining debate was the feeling that I was going to be alone. I couldn’t imagine myself competing with larger schools with big names and the resources to succeed. I didn’t think I was capable of facing them. What I misunderstood about being forensics was that without a reputation or “clout” it would be incredibly difficult to succeed. I was quickly proven wrong.

I have always been a competitive person. I’ll be the first to admit that the first few times I broke at tournaments or received a trophy were some of the best feelings ever. This feeling is what drove me to keep competing. However, as my time in debate progressed and the trophies on my shelf accumulated, I realized the real importance of speech and debate in my life- it gave me a chance to speak up and memories to last a lifetime.

After a year of competing, I learned more about the world than I ever could have imagined, but there was still a part of me that was yearning for more. Instead of simply discussing the issues in the walls of a chamber, I now had the urge to do something about them. Especially in Congress, I have constantly heard rhetoric about refugees, the importance of environmental security, and unparalleled income inequality in the status quo. Don’t get me wrong, this rhetoric is important. The humanized impacts and solemn rhetoric that debaters use in their speeches create awareness, but it is up to us to actually do something to fix the issues. That summer, I began to work towards making the impacts used in debate into actual realities.

I wasn’t alone.

The amount of students involved in forensics that are involved in creating change astonishes me. Every corner of the country somebody is working on something. I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say that forensics has molded an entire population to create meaningful change in their communities. Friends in Florida who are working on political campaigns, students in New Jersey speaking up in state legislatures, people in California creating environmental awareness, the possibilities are endless. We are the future. We are finally creating change. Our rhetoric has turned to reality.

Thank you, speech and debate, for giving me the opportunity for my voice to be heard. Thank you for educating me on issues I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. But most importantly, for letting every single student in this activity understand the importance of their voice in the world today.  

Nearly 3 years ago I stepped foot in my principal's office; but after 2.5 years of non-stop prepping, stress, and butterflies in my stomach, I have realized that I don’t need a team to be successful. The people I have met in speech and debate are my team, and I will be forever grateful.

Rooted by Veteran's Voices-Lucy Wei

Throughout my four years in forensics, I have been told that speech and debate would grant the power to give voices back to the voiceless. While that was an amazing marketing line to entice me to join the activity, I never thought that it would actually happen. Until it did.

At the beginning of junior year, I was determined to create a poetry performance that would offer a voice to the staggering number of homeless veterans in America. But when I rehearsed, I sensed a hollowness between the pages of my binder. As I struggled to embody the confines of the character in my piece, I frequently asked myself the same question: how could I comprehend the complex emotions of a war-weary veteran? Even my near-nuclear skirmishes with my sister couldn’t compare to the crippling loss and profound darkness of war. 

Driven to perfect my performance, I researched and decided to visit the local Veteran’s Garden to gain a first hand experience. Swamped with junior year’s coursework, I promised myself that I would go only once, gather all the research I needed, and jet out after buying some flowers. Yet, wth every step I took into the lush garden, any desire to leave drifted away. Surrounded by flourishing flowers and warm welcomes from the veterans, I felt wanted, even valued among the garden’s people. After introducing myself, I began potting plants with them, cracking jokes and lamenting about boy problems (which brought a smile to their faces). Between planting seeds and watering flowers, David, the head gardener, sadly stated that none of them had any family or friends; they only had each other. Their lonely eyes urged me to come back.

I returned thirty more times that year. 

Sixteen year olds don’t normally hang out with sixty year olds for fun, but they became fast friends. I did everything from regaling them with tales about my high school struggles to helping them create Facebook accounts, navigating my new friends through the complexities of contemporary America. I was the driver and they were the passengers, embarking on a variety of adventures, all within the confines of a tiny greenhouse. In return, they stunned me with riveting stories about surviving experiences I’ve never imagined, like Randy who lost his leg during the Iraq War. It was truly inspiring to see how positive these individuals were despite their horrific pasts. As time progressed, they became my family. I began to notice the little things, like how most customers were so consumed with their busy schedules, they never met the vendors - the veterans didn’t really have a voice. 

After each visit, I bought a pot of flowers as a souvenir. My mother and I would plant them in my backyard and I would eagerly relay all the stories that were told to me that day.  

As my the flowers of my new garden bloomed, so did my bond with my unexpected family and my overall understanding of the character in my piece. 

On May 27th, 2017, I confidently stood on stage as a Oral Interpretation finalist at NCFLS, looking out at a crowd of almost three hundred people. As I started the familiar opening of my piece, I performed not only for myself but for my family from the garden. I voiced Noel’s fear when he called one of his family members after five years in combat and Randy’s moment of glory when he took his first step with his prosthetic limb. I realized I was ready to represent this group because I had gone deeper than knowing them as veterans; I got to know them as people. 

After experiencing such a unique and unexpected opportunity, I want to impart these golden rules within any speech and debate competitor. 

Treasure every single round you compete in. The average person doesn’t get a stage to tell the stories that matter to them. 

Listen. Everyone is performing with a different reason in mind, to speak on behalf of a variety of issues. 

Most importantly, remember that you are the voice for those that are unable to speak. Use that power wisely. 

When I look back on my four years of forensics, I’ve realized that the ranks and the trophies that I’ve received ultimately don’t matter. Instead, it’s the stories that I’ve told, the messages that I’ve spread, and the people that I’ve impacted that have helped me blossom.

Debate Didn't Just Change My Life, It Saved it-Luca Moretti

The TV show Parks and Recreation has been a large part of my life. When I was bullied out of school and diagnosed with Autism at the age of 12, I watched the first 4 seasons religiously and it offered me a glimpse into a world radically different from mine. It showed me that there is a world where everyone loves each other, accepts differences, and finds humor in the mundane. The show was there for me when schools denied me the rights for in-class help. It was there through everything and ended its initial run when I ended 10th Grade. In 11th Grade, I found my own Parks Department-Speech and Debate, and I accidentally become Speech and Debate’s Male Leslie Knope. As I rewatched the last two seasons this week, I cried a lot more, I understood what it was like to move on from what you loved. The first 4 seasons of the show was similar to my 7th-10th grade not knowing what I was doing, 5th and 6th finally finding what I loved mirroring her rise to City Council and then it being taken away but it made me realize there is a lot more than debate. This metaphor might seem dumb, but Parks and Rec and Debate are very similar to my life in the beauty of genuine stories. I spent the last year telling my own genuine story, but I realized no matter how much I tell it, it is impossible for the average person to understand. Every day, I suffer with Depression, the feeling of worthlessness, the lack of purpose. Every day, I suffer from Anxiety. I spent a year working through anxiety only for it to hit me again once I went to Nationals. These two mental health issues are compounded with the fact that I had been bullied out of school twice, before I was even diagnosed. An extreme stigma surrounding my disability that leads some of my extended family to not believe I have it. The education system that I went through that gives more services to people who are considered gifted and talented then disabled. An education system that failed to give me services. The fact I graduated, found purpose and took AP classes speaks volumes of the people I know. To be honest speech and debate didn’t change my life it saved it.

My entire life had been the opposite of fair. I had no intervention at a young age. It is the direct reason I am not going to a four year college. However, the connections and people I met at speech and debate that are the reason I am standing here today. All of my teammates who made Speech and Debate special. People from the larger NorCal community used their platform to speak out about the disadvantages in debate and used OO to talk about not being your own genuine self. Their advocacy inspired me and showed how special debate is.

But still, it is hard to understand my disability. I don’t really ever show it to people because I try to mask it. If I ever show my real self, people either baby me or are scared off. I bottle up who I am. I don’t cry or break down. Only a few people have seen this side of me, my Parents, Administrators and a few close friends. No one can understand what it is like to have this disability where you appear normal to everyone but everyday your brain is racing, it can’t slow down. You can’t read social cues, are too anxious to drive, live by yourself, or have real relationships with people you care about. Because it is incredibly hard to understand, please show support when you talk to people with unique experiences. Take what my debate partner said to me at Nationals when I was down and depressed: “I don’t know what your going through, and I can’t understand, but I’m here for you.

At Nationals, many of these unresolved feelings about where I stood in the speech community hit me while watching Duo Interpretation finals. In a piece about autism, a competitor stated that, “I wish I could be a normal kid.” Even though they didn’t understand the deep pain of living like a second class citizen, they acted out this story claiming to shed a light on the people without a voice. I, in the audience, had a voice. I spoke about this disability in a genuine light everyday. I deserved to be a unique voice on the final stage, but because my story makes people uncomfortable, it could never happen. I am deeply offended because that wasn’t their story to tell. That wasn’t the life that they live. They don’t have infinite obstacles to happiness and success. I had just gotten a four and been eliminated from Impromptu for telling a genuine story that was my own. I was so offended and sad I walked out of the room went to the third floor, so I started to cry. I realized that I would never reach that final stage and the obstacles to break at that tournament were simply too steep, but still I had accomplished a lot. I was the first person with Autism in recent memory to receive the Orator’s Cup in CVFL, to break at the state tournament, and break at the Berkeley National Tournament. The reason that I was able to do this was because of an inspiring encounter at National Qualifiers last March. In rounds of Extemp and Congress, I was judged by a key figure at my community, who told my coach that I had potential. Beyond the compliment, my coach revealed that he was on the autistic spectrum. It showed me that someone on the spectrum could be a successful coach, and that I, too, could have a place in this community. Role models who also share a similar experience are incredibly important, and they are the reason that I am excited to be a coach. I want to leave with one piece of advice. You can never truly understand someone else’s experience, so respect others’ disabilities and stories. Someone with a disability can have a voice, and if you don’t have a direct connection, don’t play that person in an interpretation event. It can be hurtful and insensitive. Second, when you don’t know the story of someone else, the language you use can be hurtful. Be mindful of the rhetoric you use, and offer every student the same dignity. Third, make a conscious effort to understand things you find uncomfortable to discuss. If you want to talk to me about disabilities in the debate space, the education system or depression, let me know. CVFL, Congressional Debaters, Orators, and all the members in the community saved my life. Find your Parks and Rec, find your weird quirky and caring community, it might just save your life.

Thought Bubble: The Costs of Camp Culture

For debaters who have competed for the past nine months, July is the time to relax and finally do something besides prep. In my case, it means binge-watching twenty to thirty seasons of different reality television shows, but to each their own. Still, a select few debaters decide to lengthen their season with a preseason training: an elite debate camp. Over the past few years, scores of elite, perfectly packaged, and well resourced camps have become the monopolizers of circuit success. These institutes are staffed by the nation’s highest ranked debaters, coach the nation’s highest performing competitors, and have the nation’s most expensive tuitions. Still, while these camps are eager to feature their competitive advantage, they are equally enthusiastic to ignore the social stratification that these camps create. 

At a price tag of around $2,500, students receive 40-50 hours of group and individual instruction. Subtracting the time wasted, the socialization time, and special events, students are paying more per hour at camp than they would in a one-on-one private lesson. When students attend debate camps in 2018, they’re going less for content and more for connections. In debate, students can create valuable prep circles and relationships with coaches that’ll serve as their judges later on in the season. In speech, students build friend groups that will watch their speeches, put in a good word to their own coach, and help them find material to add into their pieces during the season. Obviously, for those paying, this is a rightful prize. Camp is an investment that has its returns, but in an academic event, where students should be judged by their academic and performative ability, some are boxed out of winning because they cannot make the initial investment. 

In three years, my parents had the financial ability to send me to one camp: the NSDA’s Online Extemp Institute. In five days, I was afforded twenty five hours of instruction for less than $10 an hour. This opportunity gave me the chance to interact with some of the most distinguished extemporaneous speaking alumni in the United States, learn the “tricks of the national circuit,” and become a more established name in the event I competed regularly in. We did not have a glamorous lecture hall, a spotless social media page, or a staff that had won every national championship in recent history, but we had enough to become far better speakers. Our small family in the NSDA online institute went on to have some success on the circuit all because the opportunity had been created for an affordable camp. 

Perhaps the most heartbreaking article that I read this year was “Why We Aren’t Having a Camp This Year” from the founder of the ASDF. This Florida camp, one of the only affordable yet resourced options for students, could not afford operational costs without raising prices unsustainably. Camps are absolutely expensive to run, but as options like ASDF are forced to shutter their doors, it’s the responsibility of larger camps to create even more scholarships or work with large school programs to scholarship students. Camps with online sections are paving the way for a more inclusive learning experience, and private coaches are starting to diminish the gap between camp and non-camp students. Ultimately, there’s a certain fear of missing out that always comes during camp season, but don’t lose hope at the sparkling pictures. There are affordable options to become a great speaker or debater, and we can only work to create more.