As I walked the streets of my college the other day, I realized that this is not where I expected to be. I’m not sure exactly where I thought I would be, but it wasn’t Indiana, and it certainly wasn’t somewhere where the temperature would reach above 90 degrees in late September. Halfway along the mile-long walk, I started to reminisce about the friends I left behind in the tristate area and the memories we had. One memory in particular stood out. It was districts junior year, and several New Jersey extempers were gathered around a table. We started talking and in the middle of the conversation, I got a message from an interp friend. She sent me a link to a series of what can only be described as extemp erotica – which, of course, we then proceeded to read out loud in the prep room. Our brief stint as interpers, performing the harrowing tales contained in “XXXtemporaneous Speaking,” so masterfully penned by mynameisnoodles on Deviantart, still brings a smile to my face as I write this. It’s an odd memory, but emblematic of something important that forensics taught me: even in the tensest of moments, the middle of districts, it’s possible to find the humor in life. These kinds of grand life lessons, the kinds you hear espoused by relatable, comedy relief side characters and fortune cookies alike, are really the ones that stick with you most from forensics. Warmups teach you not to take life too seriously, awards (or lack thereof) teach you humility, and the largely subpar food teaches you to eat a large breakfast. But there was one lesson that always stood out to me: despite this being an activity where you put yourself in front of others to be judged, it’s not your accolades that define you, it’s your personal growth.
When I first joined freshman year, I wasn’t expecting forensics to take me on such a wild ride. At the onset, I had no clue how to tie a tie or how to construct an argument, but by the end of my speech and debate career I was making it to national tournament outrounds in extemp. I joined as a timid freshman who was afraid to even participate in class, and frankly after one year of debate I was ready to quit. I believe the inner masochist in me, who has never lead me astray, urged me to keep going, to keep waking up at 5 AM to needlessly suffer at the hands of random moms. So when sophomore year rolled around, I decided to try my hand at extemporaneous speaking against my better judgement. And then something weird started happening. At my third tournament, I broke in extemp. I was flabbergasted and had no idea how or why I was going into a final round and giving speeches alongside people who were national finalists. Needless to say, I was nowhere near the level of proficiency of the upperclassmen who were breaking to finals, and the best I ever did my sophomore year was fifth place.
But fifth place was more than enough for me. What that trophy represented wasn’t merely that I did well on some Saturday in some random school in New Jersey, it was that I was growing, and I was growing in a place where I felt accepted. No matter what issues I had in school, at home, or anywhere else, when I put on my suit and read my topic aloud to the judge, all my problems melted away and everything just clicked. Forensics was somewhere I could go to feel welcomed and loved. It gave me a second family, a second home. And I know I’m not alone. For thousands of kids across the nation, their local speech and debate teams give them a refuge from the daily struggles of being a pubescent teenager, as trivial as those struggles may be in the grand scheme of things. But that positive environment that forensics fosters naturally in every school is key to allowing students to realize their full potential. Public speaking is an invaluable skill, and the secondary and tertiary skills required to be successful in different events, like forming a cohesive argument and learning how to advocate for a cause, are the kinds of things we should be teaching students in our schools but aren’t.
Those abilities, however, are only helpful if you understand when and how to use them best, and that’s where the real impact of forensics lies. It provides a platform on which you can constantly test and fine tune your newly learned skills every week. At first, you obsess over how you can be better than everyone else, what makes them so good and how you can try to be like them. But eventually, you realize that your successes aren’t measured by other peoples’ bad days or off speeches, by trophies and medals and praise; they’re measured by your own improvement. They’re measured by looking back on where you started and seeing how far you’ve come. Sometimes it’s difficult to not mistake the forest for the trees, to believe that your success does depend on your placement. When I failed to semifinal at the Yale invitational my senior year, only making it as far as I had the year prior, I felt as though I simply wasn’t good enough. But in reality, as all students come to understand, forensics is an activity focused on self-betterment more than anything else. I realized that the speeches I gave my senior year were leaps and bounds above the ones I gave junior year and although it took some time, I came to understand that I did better personally, and that’s what ultimately matters. Speech and debate is an activity that forces you to be comfortable in your own skin and with how well (or not well) you do.
This was doubly true for me, as it was and is for many other students. I was not only an extemper, but president of my club, and that brought with it a slew of responsibilities. I spent countless nights forgoing practice to work out some problem that arose out of nowhere or scheduling national tournament itineraries. Of course, I had help from the rest of the board of our club and our teacher advisors, but I preferred to be as involved as possible. This too served as a teaching experience on personal growth. When I entered high school, I was naïve and unsure of myself. Truthfully, I was still naïve and unsure of myself when I was elected president, but my first month on the job was tumultuous enough that it woke me up to the real problems we had in our club and made me realize I could no longer be the optimistic child I once was. In many ways, forensics made me realize many of the difficulties in governing and in following what you feel is the correct path.
By the time my tenure was over both as an extemper and as president, I understood more fully the complexities in life. I walked away wiser and more wholesome than I was when I had entered, and by the end of my speech career, that was the personal growth I was looking for. It was apparent to me that everyone should have the same opportunities that I and many of my friends were given. Speech and debate changed my life forever, and I can only hope that one day I will be able to touch the lives of others the way this club has mine. I’m still deeply saddened that my years of forensics are over, but I suppose that’s speech and debate’s final lesson: how to let go and move on.