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.