I don't have much going on in the way of mystery, but those who have only known me as an adult are usually shocked to learn I was not only a public speaker, but pretty good at it, too. "Really?" they say, "but you're so..." Most people recover their composure in time to finish this exclamation of surprise with "quiet" even if I know they're thinking "awkward" or "inarticulate". I'd just started 7th grade at a new school, Assumption Academy, and I was struggling to adapt to new teachers, new classmates and new expectations. There must have been an announcement of some sort, and I must have signed up, because my mom dropped me off at Assumption one Saturday morning and I competed in my first public speaking contest. I clutched those mimeographed sheets pasted onto construction paper and read for the panel of judges. Round one, round two, and miraculously, the finals. When the dust cleared I had placed second, and I claimed my small trophy from Sister Rita Kristina. I can remember sinking deep into the blue vinyl bucket seat and feeling very proud of myself on the ride home. When we pulled into the driveway I realized I'd sat on my little trophy and broken it. I didn't even care. I'd won! Flush with my initial success I joined the "speech" team (officially the forensics team). Every few weeks a parent would drive us to a contest, usually at another local Catholic school but sometimes a bit farther away. These larger contests were naturally more competitive, and though I occasionally made the final round I didn't place again all year. In 8th grade Sister Rita Kristina encouraged me to switch to original oratory. This meant I'd be reading a speech I actually wrote, and I'd have to memorize it. I got to work writing what I believed was a hard hitting, topical speech; a speech that makes me cringe now whenever I'm brave enough to think about it. The topic: juvenile violence, a ridiculous choice for my white-bread middle class life. Of course, I knew nothing at all about the subject as either a victim or a participant, so I'm pretty sure I just made the whole thing up, statistics and all. Original oratory, indeed. But what I lacked in accuracy I more than made up for in drama. My speech closed with an ominous "juvenile violence must be stopped... before it's too late!" One thing I haven't mentioned yet is that althought these contests took place at various locations, the same core group of schools participated, so I would be going up against (more or less) the same 8 or 10 people each time. For some reason my sincerity was usually enough for the judges to overlook my histrionic speech, but as soon as god damn Kassie Appel got up there and did her speech in sign language I knew I was doomed for the rest of the year. How could I compete with that? Up until this point, other than that 2nd place showing at my first contest, I hadn't really done very well in competition. But 9th grade is when I really hit my stride. I moved into the declamation category, which meant that while I still had to memorize I was memorizing speeches other people wrote. In other words, good speeches. About 2 hours into the first contest of 9th grade, as I was listening to the 4th Clarence Darrow speech of the day (and not the last!) I realized that the key to success was finding a compelling speech that wouldn't bore the audience - and judges - to tears. I spent hours rummaging through Sister Rita Kristina's files, looking for something that would set me apart from the dry, if soaring, courtroom speeches that defined the category. I finally found it. A Heap of Trouble by Carl Hall, a pun-filled but informative essay on the impact of garbage on the environment. I know now that it wasn't a particularly good speech, but it was written in plain English and used gentle humor to make a few of its points. I became a force to be reckoned with, winning week after week, and if the judges didn't laugh quite so loud the ninth or tenth time they heard my speech, I didn't care as long as they were giving me top marks. And they did. Until, once again, everything changed and four girls from the Franciscan Academy switched to declamation. Jackie (who, sadly, died in a fire soon after graduation), Jadzia, Julie and Jennifer graciously included me in the "five Js of declamation" but when it came to competing they were as cold as ice. Imagine Muhammad Ali disguised as a quartet of private school girls. Week after week, they took the top four spots, and while their order changed my place at number five was constant. Occasionally I'd luck out and one of them would be sick, or I'd really catch a break and the Franciscan Academy wouldn't participate, leaving me in the top slot. But it was a hollow victory. 10th grade was a lot less focused. I moved from category to category, speech to speech, and never really got my footing. I managed to qualify for the state competition, and even the nationals, but those competition were incredibly fierce and I was unable to make any impression at all. It was announced that Assumption would close at the end of the school year. I transferred to Henninger (which didn't have a forensics team) and my public speaking career was over.


~BL said...

Wow - hadn't thought about that stuff for awhile. Google is dangerous when your home alone and bored. I joined Franciscan's forensics team as a junior - I think they wanted me because I drove and had a car so often we didn't need to take a bus. I was a classmate of Jackie, Julie, Jadzia and Jennifer. Jackie died actually when we were juniors - i will never forget that horrible day. Her sister had just graduated, left for Colgate, but was home that weekend. Jackie was still at TFA. Thanks for the memories, both happy and sad.

John Carocci said...

Thanks for the clarification - it was all so long ago, but of course you're right; I was still in high school when I heard about Jackie and her family. So sad.

And thanks for your comment as well - what category did you compete in?

BL said...

Can't remember what I started with - I remember reading a poem. At some point I switched to original. Like I mentioned, it wasn't exactly my thing, but all of my friends did it (Jackie, Jackie A, Jennifer) plus some of the CBA and old Assumption guys so what else was there to do on the weekends?? It was a great learning experience - especially in terms of confidence.

Are you still in Syracuse, or did I see Buffalo on your Blog? I was born in Buffalo and moved to Syracuse early but still have lots of family in both places. What year did you graduate?

John Carocci said...

No, I grew up in Syracuse but I live in Buffalo now. I graduated from Henninger in 83 - Assumption closed after my sophomore year there.