The high school class you wish you took

This post’s here if you didn’t.

About a month after I graduated college, my former high school coach — and forever mentor — invited me back to the old stomping grounds. “Speech and debate - how the skills you developed in high school have helped you since you graduated” was the prompt of a speech I would deliver to his students and families at their annual banquet.

I’m posting the transcript here to encourage you, whether you’re still in high school or 35 years out, to reflect on your skills — the tools you’re using to sculpt your future — then decide what you’d like to add to the toolbox:

If you’re planning to study law or political science in college, taking a speech and debate class in high school has its obvious benefits. So, why is a girl who graduated from Michigan Engineering talking to you folks today? I’m here to tell you that — regardless of what you decide to do — you’ll use the lessons and skills you gained in forensics throughout your lifetime.

Now everyone’s experience in debate is going to be unique to them, so I’m here to share the things I learned, and how I was able to apply them. If you can relate to the majority of them: SWEET. You understand the value of this program and you’re making the most of it. If you relate to every single one of these, you’re probably Reema*, my sister sitting over there in the audience, who’s heard me give this speech a few times. If you don’t relate to any, you probably aren’t in forensics but listen up anyway:

The first, and arguably greatest, thing you’ll learn is resilience.

I remember seeing a poster in a high school classroom once that showed two graphs: What Everyone Thinks the Path to Success Looks Like, which showed a straight line steadily increasing over time, and What the Path to Success Really Looks Like, which showed a convoluted line that shot up and down, to the left and right, but eventually landed in a place higher than it began. On your path you’re going to face unforeseen obstacles; sometimes, you’ll be walking backwards even though you thought you were going forward, and sometimes, you’ll change paths entirely. The important thing is that you keep going. It’s been 8 years since I first walked into Mr. Ginger’s classroom, but I remember the first speech I gave like it was yesterday. I spent the night before scribbling out my one-minute speech on a 3 by 5 notecard and memorized every word — every. single. word.

I was nervous to the point that I spent hours practicing for what would basically be 60 seconds of speaking. So, naturally, as these things usually go, when I got up to give my speech I started with “Hi, my name is Soona” and immediately forgot everything I was supposed to say afterward. I frantically looked down on my notecard and tried to find my place, but the words were so small, and my sweaty palms smudged the ink. I cut my speech short and made my way back to my seat, trudging through the heavy weight of my classmates’ stares. There, at my desk, I spent the remainder of the period fighting back tears. I’d never been more embarrassed in my life. In hindsight this moment would end up being a major pivot point in my speech career, though I couldn’t have known that then.

When the bell rang to leave class, I felt an overwhelming sense of liberation; I realized no matter how many speeches I’d give afterward, they’d never go as horribly as my first one did. So, I experimented with different speech styles, incorporated jokes, and was all the bolder in writing and delivering speeches. I had the courage to take risks in my presentations because I had the courage to mess up. Freshman year, I could barely speak for 5 seconds without choking up. Fast forward to senior year, I was ranked 11th public speaker in the nation.** The point I’m making, cliché as it may be, is that it’s alright to fail — just make sure you bounce back stronger.

Second is critical thinking skills.

In debate you learn to weigh all evidence provided in a round to make informed decisions: from how to strategically answer your opponent’s rebuttals to which arguments are most important to evaluate. But, the most vital debates you’ll have in life won’t be with another high school’s students — they’ll be with yourself.

You’ll be both the debater and judge of your life decisions and strategies. In forming your beliefs, deciding what to major in, choosing a career path, and building relationships, you’ll need to continuously analyze the consequences of each action or, better yet, inaction. The more developed your critical thinking skills are, the smarter your decisions will be.

The third skill is impromptu speaking.

Some of the most important things you’ll say in life won’t be pre-written speeches. You’ll have interviews where you need to think on your feet and still provide thorough and eloquent answers. You’ll give presentations that may be scripted, but they’ll have Q and A portions that won’t be. In high school, a fellow debater encouraged me to compete in extemporaneous speech, but I let her know I was too intimidated to try. She then asked me if I’d ever done debate. This was my sophomore year — of course I’d done debate — I’d been debating for two years. I was mildly offended she asked me a question with such an obvious answer uuuntil I realized what she was getting at. Each time you debate, you give extemporaneous speeches; you’re asked questions you don’t always anticipate, and you deliver speeches you haven’t practiced before. How is extemp any different? How is impromptu any different? As you get older, it becomes apparent who’s had practice with impromptu speaking and who hasn’t. I hope you’ll all identify yourselves with the former.

Fourth is time management.

In the interest of time, suffice it to say that this one’s pretty self-explanatory.

(exaggerated pause)

The fifth skill you cultivate in forensics is my personal favorite — and that is empathy.

The neat thing about debate is that, in order to be successful, you need to be able to understand and debate both sides of an argument equally well. The neat thing about life is that, in order to be successful in work, school, and your social circles, you need to do the same. It’s not enough to simply see a situation through another person’s eyes. You must accurately and deeply comprehend motivations and forces at play that shape the other person’s view of the world. Then do that analysis again — but this time, on yourself. You’ll become a more thoughtful communicator. You’ll grasp the unspoken parts of your communication better. And these byproducts are integral to the sixth skill you’ll learn…

and that’s how to be a team player.

That’s a broad statement — what does it mean to be a team player? It means you’ll sometimes be a cheerleader when it’s midnight and your team still has a lot of work to do, but everyone wants to throw in the towel. Sometimes, it means being a peacemaker when tensions flare between group members. And most importantly, it sometimes means being a leader even when you aren’t given the title. Group projects didn’t vanish once I graduated high school — if anything, in college I had more. As I get ready to work for a startup, I realize our entire company is just one big ol’ group project. Since my athletic ability, or lack thereof, pretty much ruled me out of being in a sports team, I learned all I know about being a team player from forensics.

I encourage you all to keep a mental list of the lessons and skills you’re learning. It’s fantastic that you, at some point, made the decision to enroll in speech and debate, but what is it that keeps you coming back? The answer will be different for everybody, but also the same in the respect that your future experiences and success will depend on it. Debate prepared me for “the real world” in ways I never could have anticipated as a high schooler, sitting where you are now.

If I could leave you with one last message, it’s only fitting that it’d be an amalgam of my favorite high school posters, which still line your classroom walls: “In the future you will face challenges, but remember that these are the days that must happen to you. Arm yourself with coffee, [the skills you learned in debate], and a willingness to be wrong / Don’t fear the desert, it’s not a place of abandonment but a place we need to begin / Run at it. Run at it head on.”

*Reema is part of the current debate team

**In Original Oratory