What’s so great about speech team anyway?

Just like I’ll always feel hungry for new notebooks and sweaters in September, I’ll always feel a heady rush of adrenaline in early-to-mid February.

For February, dear friends, begins the run to the IHSA State Speech tournament.

It’s hard to describe just what speech meant to me in high school, and still means to me, really. It’s a huge source of pride for me; it helped me develop confidence and cultivate relationships; but most of all, it’s a huge connection to my family. Both my parents competed, and my dad has been a head coach for more than 20 years now.

If I hadn’t fallen so passionately in love with journalism, I could easily have seen myself becoming a teacher and coaching speech like my parents. It’s such a close second, in fact, that I’m a little sad sometimes that I can’t do both.

Before I started high school, I consistently gave my dad grief about doing speech — I threatened to do Debate instead. I was at that age where it wasn’t cool to like what your parents liked. And while I always liked going to my dad’s tournaments as a child, I had no sense of the speech legacy I had inherited or just how powerful participating in the activity could be.

By senior year, I’d shrugged off my teenage angst and found an event that fit: Radio Speaking, the same event my dad had done in high school. And I had my goal: qualify for State — the biggest accomplishment for Illinois speech kids.

When my coach was put on an early maternity leave, my dad took over. I’d leave school Friday evenings after prepping our freshmen, eat a quiet dinner with my dad at the Greek-owned restaurant in our neighborhood, and tuck in for a night of reading scripts, timing myself and perfecting all the rough edges in my voice. It was hard, at times, to take the notes and criticism from him, but I saw the purpose of them now, and we had the same goal this time.

And we grew closer. I was able to share my struggles and successes with him, made all the more special because he’d struggled and succeeded in similar ways.

Then, Regionals.

We were back at Elk Grove High School, where I’d gotten my Radio start two years earlier. When I found out I made finals, I immediately stepped out of the line for lunch. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat, and it took everything I had to keep my voice steady while I performed. Sitting in the auditorium, where my dad had directed countless plays and I had sat in on countless rehearsals during my childhood, I waited for the Radio results to be announced. As head coach, my dad would be reading them.

All that sighing meant he was trying not to cry, but you can clearly see me starting to cry as I walk up the stairs. It was a pretty moving moment for both of us.

At Sectionals the next week, I kept my act together better when I won and qualified for State (nerves! professionalism! don’t trip down the stairs!), but my dad didn’t fare as well (or so I heard). He said it was at that point he thought I might be able to win at State.

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State was five hours away in Belleville, Ill. The entire weekend was entirely overstimulating, but a few moments stand out: the neon blocks of the brick breaker game I played on my iPod as I anxiously waited to prep for my final round; sitting in the dark gym during awards fretting over whether I needed to bring my script with me to the stage; and my heart beating so loud it filled my head with the rhythmic thudding as I stood on the stage waiting to hear how I’d done.

All State Champions perform, and once I finished my 5-or-so-odd minutes of radio script, all I can remember is walking off stage and staring straight ahead at the gym door that led to the hallway. I barely heard the applause or my heels clacking on the ground. I brushed off a few congratulatory embraces, eyes still on the halo of yellow-tinged light that surrounded the door. My hands slid against the smooth metal bar as I pushed it down, opened the door and crashed into my dad’s arms.

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That was five years ago. And while it seems like almost a lifetime between that day and today, some things haven’t changed:

  • I’m still very proud of my State title. It’s the only high school accomplishment left on my resume, and I can’t bring myself to take it off.
  • I’m still thankful every day that I did speech. I’m not a TV anchor, but strong public speaking skills and confidence in front of a crowd have served me well in college.
  • I still love seeing students perform. I can remember their nerves and their excitement, the way one mistake or look from a judge could make or break your day. But I can also see the other side — how quickly it all ends and how much you miss it once it does.

Looking back on my last (foreseeable) weekend at a State tournament this past weekend, I’m left feeling a little bereft. Through my success and that of my family, speech has given me a way to shine and a way to identify myself.

In the speech community, I feel like someone. Speech isn’t going anywhere — my dad will coach kids for years more and attend scores more tournaments. But I’m leaving. And now I’m beginning to realize that I’m not ready for it all to end.

But no matter how old I am, speech will always be something that binds my family together. I’ll always call my dad after tournaments and commiserate over or celebrate how his students did. I’ll always love hearing about how my mom’s prose programs were revolutionary for their time (hint: be funny when everyone else is dramatic. It works). I’ll always take an opportunity to reminisce with my sister about the bounty of Perry’s chicken and mini-M&Ms that greeted us at my dad’s tournament every year.

And like some people ask every year to hear the story of the day they were born, every February, right when it seems that Chicago will have eternal winter, I will ask my dad to tell the story of the weekend I competed at State. Especially the part when he found out my ranks. And especially especially the part when he called my mom and they both cried on the phone.

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