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What I learned through high school speech and debate

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Two weeks ago, for three days in a row, the Stanford campus was invaded by little men and women in black suits. The sight of them scurrying across White Plaza and checking the campus maps, only to stand in front of a wall and begin rehearsing their speeches for the 200th time stopped me dead in my tracks. Memories began to flood me.

I remember slamming my alarm clock with my palm so hard that I knocked it off the bedside table. I’d let it sit upside-down on the floor while I tried to steal five more minutes of unsatisfying sleep.  

I remember having to force myself out of bed into the chill of the early morning so that I could hurriedly slip into my mother’s old blazer and pencil skirt, an unflattering suit that was either too tight or too baggy in all the wrong places. 

I remember piling into a van with a group of nervous, cranky high schoolers and a tired coach who tried to feign chipper excitement as he slid one hand back and forth along the steering wheel while the other tightly clenched a steaming cup of coffee as though it might run away from him. 

More than anything else, I remember the constant anxiety that sat and simmered at the pit of my stomach, filling it like a balloon as the van approached its destination. 

To step out of the car at seven in the morning at another high school or college campus was to enter a universe where 14-year-olds faced every patch of open wall they could find and gesticulated wildly as they rehearsed their oratories, dramatic interpretations, and duos. This is what it meant to participate in a high school speech tournament. 

The cafeterias and gymnasiums that hosted the hundreds of students and coaches from dozens of schools all over the country reeked of oily pizza and Cup Noodles, which the tournament often supplied because it was the cheapest way to feed massive hordes of jittery adolescents. 

Tournaments are structured so that each student participates in three rounds in which they must present a 10-minute, completely memorized speech in front of six or seven other competitors and a judge, who generally happened to be a parent of one of the competitors volunteering for the weekend. If a competitor does well enough in these three rounds, they might advance to semi-finals, or even finals, depending on the size of the tournament. 

I had been elected captain of my school’s team, which entailed leading a few warm-up exercises at the start of every practice and tournament, as well as offering advice for other students’ pieces. While those on our high school’s debate team skimmed news articles and philosophers’ Wikipedia pages for headliners and concepts they could reference in their rounds and pretend that they understood, the speech team would soak in our own prideful eccentricity. We would wrap ourselves in brightly colored blankets and flaunt flamboyant slippers. As the next round approached, we’d locate the nearest empty wall spaces on campus at which we could shriek our speeches and flap our arms like possessed puppets. 

I look back on the many weekends and innumerable hours that I spent on speech, and the first thing that pops into my head is the question: Why on earth did I do that to myself? Why did I spend two or three full, 12-hour days sticking myself in a room with seven other anxious kids and an inexperienced, yawning judge, only to panic as I tried to remember the next lines of my speech? Why would I subject myself to three rounds of nauseating stress while wearing an uncomfortable suit that highlighted my sweat stains and prepubescent body in a way that nothing ever should?

The answer, I now realize, exists in the way that speech taught me to carry myself. Attending these tournaments, speaking in front of these judges and competitors over and over taught me to lace my words with confidence, even when I didn’t fully believe in myself. It taught me to channel my nervous energy into a projection of excitement and poise so that others would believe in what I had to say as well. I participated in a category called “Original Oratory,” meaning I had to write and present a persuasive piece about something that mattered to me. Speech taught me to research, to care, and to make others care, too. 

Over the first weekend of February, Stanford hosted its 34th annual speech and debate tournament. Though I had promised myself after graduating from high school I was finally free of the mayhem and stress of a speech tournament, I returned to judge for my former high school after hearing about a shortage of available parents. 

It was bizarre to finally be on the other side of the process — to be the observer of these speeches and have the power to rank and score each competitor, to recognize the fact that while for each student, giving their speech in front of me might be the scariest or most important thing in the world in that moment, I, on the other hand, had little to no stakes in paying attention. While for them, my scoring could pave their pathway to what they believed to be a free ticket to a good college, I could zone out and rank them at random if I hadn’t cared.

But I did care. As I watched each of these nervous young competitors straighten their ties, tuck their shirts and take the stage, I could see the nervousness that lurked just beneath the polish they were layering on their words, their gestures and their comportment. But I also saw bravery, and maybe more so, I saw grit. 

I know that each and every one of those young people, whenever they had a chance to pause from the mad pace of the forensics event long enough to look around the Stanford campus, was setting their sights on their ultimate goal, the one behind that of winning the tournament and getting straight A’s: attending a school like Stanford itself.  

And as I strode through Old Union and held the door for a young girl in a pencil skirt who was carrying her tripod and presentation in one hand while trying to switch from her running shoes to her high heels with the other, I briefly felt that I was looking back through time at myself, and I was proud.

Contact Clara Spars at cspars ‘at’ stanford.edu.