I quickly realized I didn’t have a good recollection of how Forensics tournaments worked or how chaotic they could be for the host. Or maybe I was just too young and involved in my own concerns to notice.
There’s not much that can prepare you to walk into the world of high school speech and debate at the high school level, not even previous experience as a competitor.
I decided to take up some judging at Platte County High School last week for a couple of reasons. I have fond recollections of my time — one year to be exact — working with Mrs. Heidi Mick, the former coach of the Pirates. I also found my curiosity piqued to get a refresher and see what had changed.
A lot has changed.
The National Forensics League (or National Speech and Debate Association) can be the butt of some pretty tired jokes: “No, not that NFL,” (forced chuckle); “You mean like what I see on CSI?” (blank stare).
Full disclosure, I’ve heard those before and used to try and give an explanation of what it was we did during class, practice and competition. Matter of fact — prepare for unimpressive humble brag — I qualified for state in duet acting as a senior in 2001 at Platte County with classmate Clark Collings. We did the famous “Who’s on First?” bit from Abbott and Costello.
Bummer information from last week: that category doesn’t even exist anymore. Oh well.
According to the group’s website, there are 21 events recognized for competition. Kids can choose what to enter, or in the case of Mrs. Mick, she would assign you to try each one whether you liked it or not.
This was both challenging and annoying.
But after judging, I was reminded of the guts it takes to open yourself up at these competitions.
You walk into a room to encounter an adult stranger. He or she observes you for a period of time and then gives you a score based solely off the analysis of those few minutes you spend together.
Then you go back to being strangers after the brief encounter.
In between, you witness well-dressed young adults passing each other in a hurried manner — some carrying briefcases, others murmuring to themselves, others looking like they need to find a bathroom.
The high school on Friday night was like a miniature airport with students crisscrossing paths. Each individual knows where to go, and the competitors know more than the volunteer judges if my experience is any indicator.
I did two sessions, starting with original oratory. Students deliver a self-written, 10-minute speech on a topic of their choosing. Competitors craft an argument using evidence, logic, and emotional appeals.
After that I went to foreign extemporaneous speaking, which I can tell you from experience is incredibly difficult. Students randomly draw a question related to current events, and in 30 minutes, they prepare a 7-minute speech by consulting articles and evidence gathered prior to the contest but can’t consult the internet while preparing.
That’s new from when I suffered through this 15 years ago, when you didn’t have to worry about the internet because there weren’t enough phone lines that could handle that type of demand.
I really enjoyed my time and saw some amazing presentations.
But more importantly, I saw this worthwhile competition from the other side. I could recall my own nerves and struggles in those same situations and understand the bravery from the pure and polished pieces to those wanting so badly to succeed.
I tried to take my judging seriously and provide worthwhile feedback.
When I walked out of the “airport,” I also felt a little sense of pride, knowing that at one time I experienced at least moderate success in Forensics. I can’t imagine I ever gave a performance on par with the best I saw last week, but maybe I was better than I remember.
I volunteered with Dana Hale, the current coach at Platte County, and gave my past participation as a reason to judge. She urged me to take on some of the finals judging, possibly for duo interpretation — the closest to duet acting the NFL currently offers.
Listen, I don’t think I ever had a prime. If I did, it’s passed me up at this point.
I’m just thankful for the chance to relive a bit of my past from the other side, even if the need for judges makes just about anyone eligible. Maybe next year my schedule will allow me to take Hale up on her offer to judge those finals.
Couldn’t hurt to take a look and enjoy another refresher.
Ross Martin is publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Citizen_Ross.