I occasionally joke that I’m in the USAF and I used to be in the NFL. Those would be the United States Aikido Federation and the National Forensic League.
The National Forensic League makes a sport of public speaking at the high school level. They hold both debate and public speaking tournaments, where participants get points for how well they do in the contests. We started a speech club at my high school (Donelson High School in the Nashville, TN school district), and worked toward qualifying for club membership in the NFL. I forget how many points it took, but we qualified in a remarkably short period of time, owing to having two powerhouses, my friend Phil Wright, and, well, me.
I have no idea if any high school students will read this, but I’ll give the advice anyway: if you have the opportunity to do some public speaking in high school or college, take it. You’d be amazed at how often it comes up in life, and how important just a bit of experience in not getting tongue-tied or otherwise loosing your cool in front of an audience can be.
For the life of me, I can’t remember what holiday it was, when the following took place. It wasn’t the 4th of July, because we were in school, but it was some occasion for patriotism, because I remember portions of others’ speeches referring to 1776, the flag, all the usual things. In any case, our club sponsor, Mr. Anderson, rounded us up and asked if we wanted to go to a speaking contest at an Elk’s Club in downtown Nashville. We’d go to a venue at the drop of a hat during that period. We were trying to rack up points and the old competitive juices were flowing (I know, I know, it was a nerd competition, but winning is winning, and besides, we were nerds). Moreover, we got the afternoon off from school.
So we all piled into Mr. Anderson’s car and headed downtown to the Elk’s Club.
Which turned out to be entirely Black. Nowadays, it would be African-American, but at the time, I think that Black was more correct, although, given the ages of most of the people there, Negro might even have been more proper, i.e. the terminology they would have applied to themselves. Some of them may even have been Colored.
They were dressed in business suits and fine dresses, and fully ready to hear some speeches. Our group had the only melanin-deprived skin in the place; the other contestants were more local to the neighborhood. But everyone smiled at everyone else, and we got to the business of speechifying.
One of the speakers was a black girl who had the cadence thing down to a “T” and who stood off to one side of the podium, hand resting lightly on it, except when she used both hands to gesture. It was a fine performance and as flowery as many of the hats in the audience. I assume I did my regular thing: voice-of-reason-with-just-a-soupcon-of-passion. It works in almost any venue, and I wasn’t about to mess with it. That I don’t remember all that much of it is symptomatic of competitive speaking; you’re paying less attention to what you’re saying than how the audience is responding, and how the other speakers are doing.
Then Phil spoke.
Phil has since become a preacher, or so I understand. I’m sure he still has the chops. Not to put too much weight on it, but he was really good. But about mid-way through, he froze. Just blanked. It happens to the best of us, and it’s one of the reasons for the speech training in the first place. To get it out of your system, to let you know it’s not the end of the world, and to train you to just take a deep breath, refuse to stammer, and wait for the words to return. After a long several seconds, the words did come back and he finished strong.
Later on, after first prize had been awarded to the black girl, second to me, and third to Phil, one of the judges whispered that Phil had been way out in front until his lapse. That may or may not have been true, since it’s always best for the local favorite to win one of those things, but I’m sure he would have beaten me.
Oh, and they handed us checks. We had no idea that there were cash prizes involved. We went home very pleased with how it had all turned out.
I took one other lesson away from the gig, a realization that I had looking out over the crowd, the little nods they gave, the obvious pleasure that each of them took with each mention of the flag, the country, its history and ideals. And that is this: there is no person on this continent more patriotic than a black man in a business suit.