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Constance Alexander: Speech tournaments offer an opportunity for students to find their voice

Clutching a cup of coffee and scowling at the world in general, I wonder why I ever agreed to judge a high school speech tournament on a grim Saturday morning in February. I long for the peace of home, the New York Times, and the solace of my fuzzy slippers, but instead I enter Murray High School and am swept into a throng of kids and adults. The air hums with high anxiety.

The teens are tidily dressed, with no evidence of tattered jeans or tee shirts touting bands I never heard of. Some of the young men sport jackets and ties. A few of the young women teeter on high heels. They all look suspiciously presentable.

Walking the long hall in search of the person in charge, I notice kids standing in corners, gesturing and muttering to themselves. Some are deeply engaged in monologues, while others work in pairs. They rehearse quietly, intently, in their own little worlds.

When Michael Robinson, coach of the Murray High School Speech Team, finds me I am a little jittery.  This is my first time judging a speech tournament, and I’m not certain about the tasks at hand. Reassuring me, Michael reviews the instructions, gives me the forms to fill out for each entrant, and escorts me to the classroom where I’ll evaluate one round of poetry and one of duo-interpretation.

The morning flies by. With eleven different presentations to observe, I have to pay close attention, listen carefully, and take notes that provide useful feedback. When I look at my scrawled notes, I wonder if my cursive writing will be like Sanskrit to young readers.

Between rounds, there is time to edit and score the whole group. As I reflect on the performances, I am impressed with range of topics addressed in the presentations. The teens tackled important and controversial issues, always with tact, good taste, and sometimes an appropriate shot of wit. Bullying, religious intolerance, mental illness, school shootings, lifetime friendships, love, loss, and Alzheimer’s disease were some of the subjects. So many ideas were covered, I was sorry there was no opportunity to talk to the presenters and find out how they manage to cover so much territory while adhering to a 10-minute time limit.

“Sometimes a topic speaks to a student,” Michael Robinson tells me. Once that happens, coach and student work together. There is research involved, as well as organization, planning, and serious editing.

Parents and their kids are encouraged to discuss the chosen topic. “Everyone has to feel comfortable,” Michael says.

The job of speech team coach is tailor made for Robinson. He was a speech team member when he went to Murray High School, under the expert direction of his coach, Mark Etherton.

“He helped put me on this path,” Michael admits, adding that his experience prepared him for things like hosting a tournament.

On Saturday, Murray High School actually hosted two tournaments – middle school and high school. Thirteen schools competed, including 125 kids, 73 judges, and 206 entries. Presenters from Murray, Paducah, Calloway, Graves, McCracken, and Marshall Counties were involved, so keeping track of all the moving pieces has to be a logistical challenge. 
Former speech team members came back to judge, inspired by their own fond memories and the impact that speech team had on their lives.

“Communication skills open doors to whatever path you choose,” Michael Robinson explains. He goes on to add that some alums have achieved outstanding success and acclaim, while others have chosen the path to serve others.

Whatever the long-term results,  Michael says, “We’re here for the kids.”

He reminisces about a reunion last summer of MHS speech team kids, some of whom are no longer kids exactly. “They formed strong bonds,” he declares. “I know I did. Speech team helped me find my voice.”

For an article about the team, go to www.murrayledger.com. An article about the MHS Team reunion is also available online.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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