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Friday, February 17, 2012

Speak Your Piece

Wondering why I’ve been off the radar lately, barely able to keep up with packing lunch boxes, putting gas in the car or replying to the messages stacking up in my in-box? (Ok --who said that’s nothing new? Wise-guy.)

I coach High School forensics. This does not involve the dissection of bodies. My forensics is public speaking. There are acting and oratory type events. Some events are funny, some sad and some are seriously nerdly.

Working with the team reflects lessons for my writing, every time I coach.

Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You need a judge’s response to improve and grow. You need teammates too.

There are rules. Some are absolute. Some can be pushed. Beware the ones you push, you need both skill and absolute confidence to walk that dog.

You can’t control the judges’ response. All you can control is how hard you work.

Sometimes, feedback helps. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

Every week, I try to help the kids process these lessons. Every week, I help myself with the same lessons.

The speech competition season runs from November to February. The last three weeks of the season are reserved for the state series: regionals, sectionals and (drum roll) state.

I’ve been working with the team for four years. This is my first year coaching Radio Speaking, which some consider the red-headed step-child of forensics. No one knows how to judge it (so the scores can be wildly different.) It’s hard to do (you need kids who are smart and culturally literate. You try pronouncing all the names of the leaders of the world & all the foreign cities in the news from their spelling on paper!) and it’s weird to coach, because it’s both oddly physical and yet, all about voice technique. All my experience came from the news broadcast I did in college, back when dinosaurs roamed the land. Which meant my teaching motto was: That’s a good question, I’ll find out.

I trot over to the school several days a week, as well as most Saturdays, to practice or compete. Over the course of the season, five out of eight of my kids finaled or placed 1st , 2nd or 3rd. The remaining kids were getting solid scores by the end of the year. Considering the fact that most were underclassmen or new to Radio Speaking, I’m really proud of how well they’ve done.

For the state series, we’re allowed to enter one student per event. I chose a sophomore girl who has been gradually improving all year. She squeaked through the regional competition, just making the cut, (whew,) which left Sectionals looming in front of us.

Some coaches consider our sectional tougher than the state meet—because at sectionals we compete against the best kids from the old speech powerhouse schools, mostly wealthy, citified parts of our state. At the state competition, the students face sectional winners from many rural areas with smaller schools. There are always wildcard, great performers in the mix, but kids from smaller schools don’t always have the stamina of the kids from big schools with the money and the coaching staff to go out and compete every Saturday for months. Stamina matters when you get up at 5am, drive for an hour (or three) and then perform three or four times in a day.

There’s another lesson: if you want to do your best, working consistently matters. Stamina matters.

Our Sectional was last weekend. Never mind the kids, I was so sweaty with nerves by the time the finals started, I couldn’t take my coat off.

My high school sophomore, who’d only competed as a novice at three tournaments last year, who couldn’t get through three rounds without cracking at the start of the season, well…she won. The announcer called: “And your Sectional Grand Champion in Radio Speaking is….” And “Shut the f*#! up,” was my wordsmith response.

Coaching has taught me so much. I tell the kids: you can do this. You’re good at this! I tell them: you are not the best judge of your performance. Let it go. Try again. I tell them: have fun today!

How many times have I heard these lessons echoing in my own old brain and come home energized for my work?

So forgive me, if I’m slow responding to messages today. I’ll be traveling downstate, through cornfields full of no satellite service, to join my team at the state competition.

Feeling pretty lucky today.


Anne Marie Becker said...

I LOVE stories like this...where you get so much out of volunteering your time AND the kids learn so much from you. Win-win!

Good luck at the State competition - sounds like you all have worked hard!

Marcelle Dubé said...

Woot! What a great story! Love how your work with the kids intertwines with your writing world. It's very true: we are all the worst judges of our own work. All we can do is the best we can, and put our work out there.

Way to go, J.!

Elise Warner said...

Fascinating blog, J. And the competition sounds like great background for a book.

J Wachowski said...

Thanks guys!
It was a looooong weeknd. Lots of drama. :)
My girl did really well--although she "squirreled." Which is two good scores, and one not-so-good. No trophy but lots of things to be proud and happy about! The team had a few great successes and took a few hits. And that's just about the best life lesson you can get.

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