The Young Competitor

This is your host wearing a dark brown velour three-piece suit. Since we dressed up for speech contests, this is how I would have appeared at each of them.
This is your host wearing a dark brown velour three-piece suit. Since we dressed up for speech contests, this is how I would have appeared at each of them.

Picture me at 15. I’m skinny and awkward. I haven’t figured out how to comb my hair for my age.

In the field behind our house where workers dump road material that will later become a parking lot for a strip mall, I pace back and forth, saying something. Seeing me from a distance, you might conclude I was insane.

“My neighbor has a gun,” I say. “In fact, not having the good fortune to live at the end of a cul-de-sac, all my neighbors have guns.”

It is the 20th or so time I have said these words, the first lines in an eight-minute “standard oratory,” a category of speech competition. I am giving the speech at a competition in a few days, so I am relentlessly practicing.

This is Dray and me in our motel room in Weatherford, Oklahoma, where we spent two nights at a speech tournament there in February 1979.
This is Dray and me in our motel room in Weatherford, Oklahoma, where we spent two nights at a speech tournament there in February 1979.

Every activity or sport or occupation has its own vernacular. At a breakfast place the other day I heard someone ask, “Did you throw the eggs yet?” They needed a verb, so “throw.”

High school speech was no different. The question most often asked as we sat in high school lounges after giving our speeches or performing our theater pieces was, “Did you break?” In speechspeak, it asked if you “broke” through the preliminary first round by qualifying for semi-finals later in the day. We would nervously say, “I hope I break.”

In addition to my standard oratory, I did a humorous duet with Dray Holman, which we took from the Monte Python skit about the Piranha brothers. I also did a dramatic duet with Rob Shaeffer. I don’t remember the exact play from which it was culled, but I do remember that the key element in the scene is that I poison his drink and he dies on stage. Rob died in real life in his 20s.

Revising my revisionist history: in reviewing my journal from 1978-1979 for this entry, I ran across a number of occasions on which, while in college, I wrote little smart-ass quips next to my teacher's comments, and decided to erase them.
Revising my revisionist history: in reviewing my journal from 1978-1979 for this entry, I ran across a number of occasions on which, while in college, I wrote little smart-ass quips next to my teacher’s comments, and decided to erase them.
From My Journal...

Monday, November 13, 1978

Saturday we all went to Midwest City for a qualifying speech tournament, I did something unexpected – I actually broke prelims and made it to semi-finals. We got the second place sweepstakes trophy. Congratulations us.

At the contest, hosted by Oscar Rose Junior College, I played seven games of chess between rounds, I won six and stalemated one.

Friday, November 17, 1978

I am seriously considering using a cutting from an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus for a humorous duet. I must be out of my mind. It’s about Doug and Dinsdale Piranha and nailing people’s head to the floor. There is also a segment in which I interview a small patch of brown liquid.

Monday, December 4, 1978

I am going to the Cameron qualifying speech tournament on Saturday with a Standard Oratory called “My Neighbor Has a Gun.” I MUST WIN! I HAVE TO QUALIFY to show that I am capable of something constructive. Well, I guess I’ll just keep practicing.

I also wish luck to Connie and Nancy as they are going in Prose and Dramatic Duet, respectively. Mrs. Donaldson said I would win and she hasn’t gone wrong yet. I think she’s trying to get the sweepstakes trophy again.

Friday, December 8, 1978

Contest is tomorrow. Am I nervous? No. Terrified is the word. I really want to win. Nancy says that Cameron is a really easy tourney to win, but still, tonight, I am going to work for many, many hours on my speech. My nerves are shot.

Monday, December 11, 1978

Well, who’d a thunk? FIRST PLACE! I’m very proud of myself. I finally got my moment of glory. I’m spiteful happy [someone else] didn’t win. I am quietly (and “to myself”) laughing in her face. I’m so happy now! Now I will either be going to NFL district or regionals since I have qualified in Standard Oratory.

Friday, January 26, 1979

We’re messing up Connie’s oratory. I hope she doesn’t lose points. No, on second thought, I couldn’t care less, but Gayle is mostly responsible. She’s making strange faces at Connie. Her speech is kind of dull, though she seems to be very excited about it.

Wednesday, January 31, 1979

This morning in third hour, we’re rehearsing our duet. I can’t believe we’re actually taking this to contest. First comes the part where I interview the Minister for Home Affairs in the organza dress and the small patch of brown liquid, followed by the stuff about Doug and Dinsdale Piranha.

This third hour is total chaos. Mrs. Nagorski [who replaced Mrs. Donaldson] is in total hysteria. We’re going to Weatherford tomorrow for a tournament. We’ll be staying two nights. The entire speech tournament plans are becoming an erratic mess. The “snow day” really shook Mrs. Nagorski. She panics at the mere mention of someone not showing up. She started crying when she found out Lauri wasn’t going to be there. Poor lady.

Thursday, February 1, 1979

Well, here I am in a sleezy, low-class motel with Gerald, Dray and Mark in my room. We’re having fun, so I won’t be the least bit disappointed if I don’t even break. After all, I’m not the least bit prepared. Okay, I am prepared, but Dray’s been working on an interp and is having some memorization problems with our duet. In fact, none of us feel prepared.

It’s rather funny to hear Mark in the bathroom and Gerald in here, rehearsing simultaneously.

I am now writing in bed. “Hold still, Mark!”

Saturday, February 2, 1979

So here I sit at 9:41 pm in Gayle’s room in a remote corner of the floor… just sitting. We’re now playing (if you can believe it) “spin the bottle” and “truth or dare.”

Admittedly, I wanted to win in every contest, but I was just a tenth grader competing against all high school grades, and wasn’t as good an orator or actor as I might have been. Despite it being a speech class, I didn’t get a lot of instruction. My only first place finish was at the Cameron University meet, which we dominated because it wasn’t much of a tournament.

I wouldn't qualify myself as a pioneer or visionary, but this is a 1979 version of a "selfie."
I wouldn’t qualify myself as a pioneer or visionary, but this is a 1979 version of a “selfie.”

As my adult life has developed, I have become completely comfortable speaking in public. In fact, I am very much in my element in front of a class of 20 or an audience of 200. If I had the time, I would love to be active in local theater.

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6 Comments

  1. I remember those tournaments! I think every high school students needs some sort of activity that schedules a road trip. Oh the things we do and learn on those trips.
    So cool that you kept all your journals. Just being a high school student and writing a journal puts you in the minority – a good place to be. It’s great to see that you are still YOU.

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  2. It’s unclear to me…at what point did you decide to erase your witty retorts to your teacher’s comments?

    Also, COMMUNITY THEATER NOW.

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  3. I shouldn’t be, (but I am) surprised to learn of common history here. I both competed in speech contests and won more at the chess I played while waiting for the team in finals. In fact in Miami I once played (in chess)a whole table (one versus six) and won. They were just terrible.

    I commonly moved past prelims in extempt but no trophies.

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  4. Fun memories.

    I have nerd-infested memories of interscholastic meets (“UIL” here in Texas), not for speech, but for math, science, and other competitions, including mechanical drafting. I know I did well at a few of them, but did not keep any of the awards, nor keep track of how well I did. I think I was only involved in them because teachers pressured me to do it.

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