Time: Saturday, 8 a.m.
Place: high school cafeteria. Wooden cubes, stools, chairs, and tubs of hanging file folders litter the space between tables.
Characters: students age 14-17 wearing either a) slightly ill-fitting suits and wobbly newly-purchased high heels, b) all black or c) suspenders and/or vests.
Activity: Students can be seen talking to themselves, talking to walls, talking to each other without making eye contact, and singing in four-part harmony. Others flip absently through packets containing schedules or newspaper articles or screenplays. Some eat doughnuts. Others gaze longingly at doughnuts but look unable to stomach them. Seen also: jazz hands.
It’s Saturday morning and I’m back at my old high school, preparing for a day full of those meta sort of moments when you get to sit on the other side of the table. Those times when you get a totally new perspective on something you’ve done a hundred times. The first time you get to participate in giving an interview and you see the nervous awkward candidate in front of you and you’re so glad not to be them. The first time you close the door of your very own classroom on the first day of school and you think wow, I’m in charge here. I’m the adult. These 25 kids are waiting on me.
Anyway, those have been my other side experiences. It’s Saturday and I’m preparing for another, this time with slightly lower stakes.
All through high school, I participated in forensics. If you’re unfamiliar, your first thought might be hm, I didn’t know high schools had teams of students compete to solve crimes. They don’t (as far as I know…). They do have teams of students who compete in public speaking and acting, though. Forensics is divided into “events,” each of which has a different set of requirements. Some ask students to memorize a speech—it could be informative, it could try to sell you something, or it could persuade you of a problem in society. Some events don’t ask you to memorize. You spend practice time reading about current events, and then Saturday morning they give you a topic to talk about and a few minutes to prepare before you speak off the cuff with just a note card for prompting. Other events are more acting-focused: you prepare a poem or a scene from a book or movie and act it out convincingly, or you can even grab five or six friends and condense a musical or movie into fifteen minutes complete with singing. Each round you compete in includes students from other schools, and a judge ranks each student in the round. Throw in a semifinal and a final round of the best speakers, and you end the day with a champion in each event.
Confused yet? I’m simplifying, but what you’ve really got to know is that judges at forensics have a lot of power. They decide who gets to move on and continue competing in semi and final rounds, and their comments (written on ubiquitous long strips of colored paper known as critiques) dictate how you might change your speech and improve it for the next week’s tournament.
So here I am again Saturday morning. I’ve been given a folder listing all the events I’m set to judge today. I settle down in the first round and suddenly I’m a little nervous. The students, who are arguably more nervous, are looking to me to say good morning and be a friendly face in the audience. They’re counting on me to be fair and write something useful on their critiques. They’re hoping I don’t write I like your shirt and the accent you used for this character and then give them the last place score. It feels like just a year or two ago that I was sitting in their seats, mentally running through my piece, praying I didn’t blank out. Or faint.
It’s all a little surreal. Forensics was such a formative experience for me in high school. I’m a pretty introverted, shy person, and I honestly joined the team because all my friends were doing it. I was nervous and worried I wouldn’t be any good, but at least I’d get to spend weekends and after school practice hours with my friends. It turned out to be my favorite experience of high school because it was instrumental in building my confidence as someone who deserves and can hold the attention of a room. It challenged me to get better every week and it developed my sense of how significantly good literature can affect us and how a powerful thesis statement can move us to action. Forensics let me take on a character—not just the character I was portraying, but an alter-ego, if you will, someone who wasn’t shy or nervous, someone who was animated and outgoing and completely confident in herself. And I loved it because as I got older, it turns out I wasn’t half bad. Give a high school kid a trophy for something like that and she’ll probably still have it in her closet as a twenty-five-year-old.
So as I sit and watch these students who have practiced for weeks, I hope they’re learning. I hope the girl in the first round who’s so nervous she can’t stop blathering to her fellow competitors eventually calms down and has a little fun. I hope the ones who don’t make it to the semi or final round get to sit in the audience a support a friend who did. I hope they learn to say what they mean and to portray emotion without speaking. I hope they learn to take on a character, but ultimately to be themselves.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.