When I became a high school freshman in Laconia, N.H., in the late 1950s, the school was already a star in the world of the National Forensic League (NFL). The main reason was Ruth Estes, who taught Latin and advised the debate and speech club. Estes had gusto and an unbendable will. She would accept nothing less than your best performance.
I was interested in debating, but I struggled to understand the NFL topic for the year. I had little ability to intimidate opponents with clever repartee. After a few defeats, Estes dryly commented, “Well, what happened to you?” So I defaulted to speech. I figured you could win there with something memorized ahead of time.
The big speech event in our community was the annual O’Shea Prize Speaking Contest, which allowed students to deliver either humorous or dramatic interpretations. You had to memorize a 10-minute slice from a play, and then perform it while dramatizing all of the characters in turn. My mother, who was pretty dramatic herself, enthusiastically became my home coach. I won the O’Shea contest every year as I learned to play different characters with voice inflections, a turn of the head and sundry hand gestures.
Later on in high school, I decided to compete in “original oratory,” where you could write a speech, memorize it and try to deliver it persuasively. I found that putting different characters into a speech and playing their roles worked really well. The debaters and I went to competitions all over New England and on to two national championships in Missoula, Mont., and Houston, Texas. I fondly remember sitting with our team on a Vistadome train out West, eating bag lunches Estes had insisted we bring. My personal triumph was reaching the finals in Missoula. Especially when nuns were among the judges, my moralistic and patriotic themes were a big hit.
Nowadays I realize that my orations inspired a lifelong commitment to American values and character. The NFL taught me the importance of engaging in school life, and how to hold my head up, project my voice and make eye contact. I also learned that teamwork, especially when focused on current issues, builds shared purpose, social and emotional competence, and motivation – all keys to academic learning.
Decades later, I became superintendent of the Pioneer School District in Cattaraugus County. Looking for lessons taught me by the NFL, I found an array of student extracurricular activities, and resourceful, caring coaches and advisers. I was pleased to discover that speech-giving had endured in the form of competitive paper presentations sponsored by the Future Farmers of America.
Like the NFL, the FFA asks students to exercise their public speaking skills. By no coincidence, the FFA nurtures young self-starters who can organize themselves and execute plans, and whose expertise will propel them toward excellent careers.
Before I retired, the FFA made me an honorary member. The plaque I received reminds me that extracurricular activities are a vital educational asset. Among many similar after-school activities, those of organizations like the NFL and the FFA stand out because they uniquely celebrate community priorities and traditions. Best of all, they teach our young people how to present themselves well and to communicate a positive message to the public.