The TV show Parks and Recreation has been a large part of my life. When I was bullied out of school and diagnosed with Autism at the age of 12, I watched the first 4 seasons religiously and it offered me a glimpse into a world radically different from mine. It showed me that there is a world where everyone loves each other, accepts differences, and finds humor in the mundane. The show was there for me when schools denied me the rights for in-class help. It was there through everything and ended its initial run when I ended 10th Grade. In 11th Grade, I found my own Parks Department-Speech and Debate, and I accidentally become Speech and Debate’s Male Leslie Knope. As I rewatched the last two seasons this week, I cried a lot more, I understood what it was like to move on from what you loved. The first 4 seasons of the show was similar to my 7th-10th grade not knowing what I was doing, 5th and 6th finally finding what I loved mirroring her rise to City Council and then it being taken away but it made me realize there is a lot more than debate. This metaphor might seem dumb, but Parks and Rec and Debate are very similar to my life in the beauty of genuine stories. I spent the last year telling my own genuine story, but I realized no matter how much I tell it, it is impossible for the average person to understand. Every day, I suffer with Depression, the feeling of worthlessness, the lack of purpose. Every day, I suffer from Anxiety. I spent a year working through anxiety only for it to hit me again once I went to Nationals. These two mental health issues are compounded with the fact that I had been bullied out of school twice, before I was even diagnosed. An extreme stigma surrounding my disability that leads some of my extended family to not believe I have it. The education system that I went through that gives more services to people who are considered gifted and talented then disabled. An education system that failed to give me services. The fact I graduated, found purpose and took AP classes speaks volumes of the people I know. To be honest speech and debate didn’t change my life it saved it.
My entire life had been the opposite of fair. I had no intervention at a young age. It is the direct reason I am not going to a four year college. However, the connections and people I met at speech and debate that are the reason I am standing here today. All of my teammates who made Speech and Debate special. People from the larger NorCal community used their platform to speak out about the disadvantages in debate and used OO to talk about not being your own genuine self. Their advocacy inspired me and showed how special debate is.
But still, it is hard to understand my disability. I don’t really ever show it to people because I try to mask it. If I ever show my real self, people either baby me or are scared off. I bottle up who I am. I don’t cry or break down. Only a few people have seen this side of me, my Parents, Administrators and a few close friends. No one can understand what it is like to have this disability where you appear normal to everyone but everyday your brain is racing, it can’t slow down. You can’t read social cues, are too anxious to drive, live by yourself, or have real relationships with people you care about. Because it is incredibly hard to understand, please show support when you talk to people with unique experiences. Take what my debate partner said to me at Nationals when I was down and depressed: “I don’t know what your going through, and I can’t understand, but I’m here for you.
At Nationals, many of these unresolved feelings about where I stood in the speech community hit me while watching Duo Interpretation finals. In a piece about autism, a competitor stated that, “I wish I could be a normal kid.” Even though they didn’t understand the deep pain of living like a second class citizen, they acted out this story claiming to shed a light on the people without a voice. I, in the audience, had a voice. I spoke about this disability in a genuine light everyday. I deserved to be a unique voice on the final stage, but because my story makes people uncomfortable, it could never happen. I am deeply offended because that wasn’t their story to tell. That wasn’t the life that they live. They don’t have infinite obstacles to happiness and success. I had just gotten a four and been eliminated from Impromptu for telling a genuine story that was my own. I was so offended and sad I walked out of the room went to the third floor, so I started to cry. I realized that I would never reach that final stage and the obstacles to break at that tournament were simply too steep, but still I had accomplished a lot. I was the first person with Autism in recent memory to receive the Orator’s Cup in CVFL, to break at the state tournament, and break at the Berkeley National Tournament. The reason that I was able to do this was because of an inspiring encounter at National Qualifiers last March. In rounds of Extemp and Congress, I was judged by a key figure at my community, who told my coach that I had potential. Beyond the compliment, my coach revealed that he was on the autistic spectrum. It showed me that someone on the spectrum could be a successful coach, and that I, too, could have a place in this community. Role models who also share a similar experience are incredibly important, and they are the reason that I am excited to be a coach. I want to leave with one piece of advice. You can never truly understand someone else’s experience, so respect others’ disabilities and stories. Someone with a disability can have a voice, and if you don’t have a direct connection, don’t play that person in an interpretation event. It can be hurtful and insensitive. Second, when you don’t know the story of someone else, the language you use can be hurtful. Be mindful of the rhetoric you use, and offer every student the same dignity. Third, make a conscious effort to understand things you find uncomfortable to discuss. If you want to talk to me about disabilities in the debate space, the education system or depression, let me know. CVFL, Congressional Debaters, Orators, and all the members in the community saved my life. Find your Parks and Rec, find your weird quirky and caring community, it might just save your life.