In high school I joined the speech and debate team as a freshman. Everyone on the team spoke a language unknown to me: Pythonese. Every last member of the team seemed to be a rabid fan of Monty Python, and I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. To this day, when I find myself in pockets of Pythia, I still rarely get the jokes.
It took me awhile to find my feet in the event arena, as well. I think I started in Interpretation of Poetry, where you dramatically present a published poet’s work. I was handed poems abandoned by someone who had also abandoned the program altogether, and I went through the motions without grasping any more than I did of Monty Python.
At some point I gave up on poetry and tried Interpretation of Humor. Again, I inherited a “cutting,” a 10-minute clip of something greater. It was from A Day No Pigs Would Die, which is not a funny book at all, although the scene itself was humorous. Not humorous enough, in my hands and voice, to win me any awards.
At some point Erik Engquist and I got paired together as a novice debate team, and that year’s topic (handed to speech and debate teams all across the country, and you had to be prepared to argue pro and con) was on nationalizing health care. But neither one of us — and we were both good students — had any idea what we were talking about.
We should have won something at one meet. For all our tenuous grasp on our topic, it was better than two of our three opponents. But in the first round, I got a one minus for my ethics. The judge came in, pulled out a cigarette (in a school!) and then asked (she asked!) if anyone would mind if she smoked. “I would,” I said. Bam! One minus on those ethics. (Now with 20/20 hindsight, I should have reported the entire transaction to my coach, who should have reported it to the meet director, who should have reprimanded the judge and never asked her to judge again.)
In the second round, we had to make the “pro” case, and we clearly bested our opponents, but the judge judged our case (which was not in his purview — man, those were crappy judges) and found it lacking (I’m sure it was), giving the win to our opponents, who offered no argument nor corroboration or really much of anything at all. They were far more lost on the topic than we were, and yet, there they were, winning the round.
So I gave up on the “debate” portion of speech and debate, and went back to trying to find an event that would suit me. I don’t know why I didn’t give Impromptu Speaking a try, since you know me: give me a five-minute head start, and I can offer an opinion on any topic you give me. Informed, or not.
Instead, I decided to give Original Oratory a try. In this event the contestant wrote and presented his or her own speech, no dramatically interpreting the work of others. On any topic of the contestant’s choosing.
That’s where I bogged down. Nothing was coming to mind. Then, a day or two before the next meet, I was reading a magazine in the school library — I’m guessing it was Sports Illustrated.
[I would like to take a moment — especially now that I’ve become a texter of no skill — to complain about whoever designed the keyboard and put U I O all right next to each other. Here is a good spot for Matt to recommend the Dvorak layout instead, but in the meantime I will just keep typing vowels other than the ones I really want.]
So I was reading Sports Ill, or some magazine, and there was an article talking about the health hazards of playing football. And I don’t know why that grabbed me over any other topic I had gone past, but I decided I could make a good speech out of that. “Every year, some will live, and a few will die,” is how I recall my speech opening.
Remember, this was about a day before the meet. I finished writing my speech in a motel room while at the meet, and — because these oratories had to be memorized (why, do you suppose? In every other event I’d done, we read from paper attached to construction paper to keep it from rustling) — I had to ask to sit down in the middle of my speech in the first round, because I couldn’t remember any of the rest of my content.
One week later, in Cedaredge it was, I successfully remembered my speech in all three rounds of competition, and after all the rounds when winners were being announced, they got to Original Oratory and said, “In third place, from Gunnison, Livermore” (I don’t know why we didn’t get first names) — and my entire team erupted in laughter as I went to claim my trophy.
Even though I stuck with the same speech and remembered it better and better, that was the only time I scored among the top three. It was the crowning achievement of a rather unillustrious extracurricular activity.
And I thought of it this morning because of my history book group, version 2.0, which met last night for the first time and looked a lot like version 1.0. Pretty much exactly alike.
One member was late because he’d been at the school board meeting, where another member (our token woman) was making the case for soccer as a varsity sport at Gunnison High School. But that might mean upsetting King Football, and so while we were supposed to be talking about legions and phalanxes on ancient battlefields, we were discussing modern gridirons and the clashes that take place there.
So while my speech and debate story was supposed to be a short introduction to today’s topic —
[It’s not just vowels. I seem incapable of typing anything this morning. if there are typos, I’m blaming the keyboard. It couldn’t possibly be me.]
— I clearly got carried away regaling you with my high school triumphs, and so today’s topic becomes tomorrow’s. Tune in for my book group discussion of Football, Soccer and Where Do We Go From Here? Despite this advance notice, it will probably be more impromptu than original oratory.