Get Up and Speak-Isabel Lai

Hi, my name is Isabel Lai. I’m a senior at Central High School in Springfield, Missouri and I’m in speech and debate. Being a senior is a curious thing — as I prepare to leave this town that I’ve always lived in and leave this school that I’ve attended for 7 years, I’ve started to think a lot about how my experiences have shaped who I am.

It might sound like one, but it is not an exaggeration to say that speech and debate has changed my life completely, in ways that I never could have imagined — that’s why I think it’s so important that everyone try it out. There’s no telling what you might find.

First of all, I want to emphasize that the benefits to speech and debate aren’t just there for the state champions or national finalists. I think that it’s hard to get out of this mindset, especially when the nature of the event is so competitive, but I truly believe that no matter what your final ranking or your win-loss record, speech and debate is an event that is uniquely beneficial for everyone.

In middle school, I wasn’t the kind of person you’d expect to be a debater. I liked doing math competitions more than I liked talking, and I preferred reading a book by myself over anything else. My parents weren’t famous speakers or politicians or anything; in fact, English was their second language. Despite this, or maybe because of it, my dad was the one that forced me — quite literally through tears — to go to my first year of speech and debate. At the time, I would have rather taken any other class.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how valuable those experiences would be and how much I would grow to love speech and debate. The first thing it did was the most obvious: it helped me learn to communicate.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the idea of speaking in front of people I knew was much more terrifying than speaking in front of complete strangers. That’s something special about speech and debate that I think allowed me to flourish: I could go into the room, completely bomb, and those judges would never see me again. Because of this, I used my novice year to fearlessly try new things and grow into my voice. Thanks to that, I was eventually able to confidently speak my mind in front of anyone, whether I knew them or not.

This is really, really important. If you’re like me, you have no clue what you want to do when you grow up. But no matter what you decide to do, you have to know how to properly communicate your ideas with confidence. Being able to find my voice, to witness my words create change, is something that I will cherish and use for the rest of my life.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I am who I am today because of the tournaments I’ve been to and the people I’ve met there. I have one tournament left, and you better believe that I’m going to make it my best one yet — if you’re lucky enough to have more, take advantage of every moment for those of us that have run out! Because a tournament isn’t just a tool that helps you communicate — as I near the end of my speech and debate career, I have finally started to realize the extent of what I owe to speech and debate.

Speech and debate has given me countless things in addition to just being able to talk: best friends, a personal philosophy, people to look up to, knowledge, research skills, the ability to speak with only three hours of sleep, a mentor and even an admission to college (when I got my letter, my admissions officer had written a small, handwritten note to me at the end: “I was so impressed by your dedication to debate and hope you’ll choose to join our class of 2022!”).

Losing round after round has given me the grit to keep tackling a problem until I make success happen. Doing research on two sides of a resolution has reminded me to stay open-minded and consider every person’s opinion. Working and laughing together with my team to find evidence and run tournaments has shown me the value of trusting others to create something larger than yourself. Befriending opponents from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. has taught me that friendship and respect for other people are much more important than winning a trophy.

We are each given a voice to change the world. If I hadn’t been forced to try speech and debate just once, I wouldn’t have found mine. Your voice is right there, too, waiting for you to find it. All you have to do is get up and speak.