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 Similar to warming up before a game (but cooler?), warmup leaders yell chants filled with oddly phrased rhymes and outdated pop culture references at a circle of pubescent teenagers engaging in acts of frenzied repetition and manic body percussion in order to wake ourselves up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,