By Katelyn Howard
“Next up, Katelyn Howard.”
As I walked to the front of the room, I repeated the beginning of my speech in my head. The sound of my heels hitting the floor echoed. I tried to control my shaking legs to not give my competitors the upper hand. This feeling wouldn’t leave even though I had already performed about a dozen times that day.
“Ready?,” I asked the judges.
After they nodded, I switched to my public speaking voice and began.
As a member of my high school’s speech and debate team, this was a normal weekend at a tournament for me and thousands of other students across the country who competed in debate, public speaking and acting events.
The coach suggested I join my junior year after I gave a presentation in one of the classes she taught. My response was “Wait, our school has a speech and debate team?” At my small Church of Christ high school in Midland, Texas, a town defined by oil, high school football and George W. Bush, fine arts programs had always been a low priority.
Until this point in my life, I had never stuck with a hobby. Ballet, quit. Tennis, quit. Cello lessons, quit. Since writing was one of my few consistent activities, I decided to give a hobby related to communication like speech and debate a try.
The theater and speech and debate classrooms sat across from each other in a corner of the building many students never visited. This room became more than just a place my four teammates and I would practice for one class period; instead, we would often find ourselves here during lunch and after school. We entered ready to recite our speeches or run lines, but we often became distracted from telling jokes, ranting about our homework and sometimes shedding tears we had been holding back in other classes. Most nights at home, I would reassure my parents, “If you hear me in my room, I swear I’m not talking to myself. I’m just practicing.”
When we weren’t preparing for our next tournament, our time together would extend beyond the classroom since we would have game nights, hang out at coffee shops, plan sleepovers and more.
Even though this classroom was my happy place, it couldn’t beat the stuffy, fluorescent-lit high schools we traveled hundreds of miles to for tournaments. I was in awe since I was used to just my teammates being the few people my age I could relate to. Here I found students with similar interests as me, which was hard to come by at my school. We discussed politics, where we bought our suits, who our biggest competitors were and what we wanted to do after high school.
For the first time, I felt accepted.
As we competed against students from other schools each weekend, some of these people became my friends while others became my enemies, or as much of an enemy as you can have in high school.
We all came from different parts of the state, but it was hard to tell us apart in our uniforms. If you’re a girl, it was a suit jacket, pencil skirt, pointed toe heels, pearl earrings, red lipstick and pantyhose, aka the skin of Satan.
Speech and debate is about the furthest you can get from a sport, but at the end of a tournament, I felt similar to what I imagine running a marathon must be like. After performing a dozen times or more from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., my feet were blistered from climbing staircases in heels and my throat was sore. This routine was exhausting, but the moment the first words of one of my speeches escaped my mouth, the adrenaline would rush back.
At the end of each tournament, our team would go to Whataburger at 11 p.m. in our suits and heels, gorge on fried food and rehash everything that happened that day.
Before we could leave the restaurant, our coach required us to reflect on what we were proudest of that day and what we needed to improve on for the next tournament. As we went around the table, everyone’s personality was reflected in their answers.
Viki would always incorporate either a British accent or an impression of the YouTuber Miranda Sings into her response. Michaela would deliver yet another speech with an introduction, three paragraphs and conclusion. Kamryn would detail a plan of revenge against her competitors. And Brailyn would undoubtedly end up shedding tears of joy or exhaustion.
Even though we got on one another’s nerves, I considered them all my second family.
When we arrived back to our hotel, we all needed rest; instead, giggling and sharing secrets at 2 a.m. would result in even more sleep deprivation.
The next morning, we would pile into the van and watch tumbleweeds blow by on the unscenic drive home. Many students liked sitting in the back row of the van, but I was the opposite since I enjoyed talking to our coach who was in the front seat.
Out of all the people I would miss once I graduated, she topped the list. She identified strengths I hadn’t recognized in myself and challenged me to explore them. She pushed me to face situations that scared me. And most importantly, she was the reason I joined the speech and debate team.
As my senior year rolled around, our team more than tripled in size due to the school beginning to acknowledge our success and our coach’s recruiting efforts. Students’ curiosity rose as the fine arts department received more funding and recognition. It made me happy to know the team would carry on in good hands, but it made me even happier that more people would experience the lessons and lifelong friendships that come from this activity.
Even though I haven’t returned to Midland since I graduated, I still keep in touch with my team. One of my biggest speech and debate rivals even became a good friend after high school and visited me at college. I credit speech and debate for teaching me skills I use in journalism and everyday life such as not being afraid to talk to anyone, analyzing an issue from all angles, being assertive and knowing how to dress.
In fact, two years later I sat in the lobby of a newspaper’s office waiting for my internship interview in the same suite and heels I had worn at every tournament. As I gripped my resume, I repeated responses in my head to questions the editor might ask. I tried not to focus on the other internship candidate being interviewed behind the glass wall.
I pictured walking into the conference room with my head held high and giving the editor a firm handshake.
“Next up, Katelyn Howard,” the receptionist said.