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.