On June 16th, 2021, in a disheveled suit matched with house shoes and a brain that seemed too tired to work any longer, my speech and debate career ended. The departure was unceremonious: I left the Zoom round, shut my computer, and went to take a nap. I had imagined that moment in so many different ways--a teary, grand final performance, a meta fourth-wall break to my judge, an unhinged expression of emotions--but the real one was solemn and muted, a quiet whimper in remembrance of the memories I would never receive. What hung over me, then, was the truth that there was now nothing tying me to high school. I was done, officially.
After I had physically healed from a laborious post-nap, I instantly noticed the regret bubbling in my stomach. What if I had taken a supplemental event? What if I took Original Oratory instead of World Schools Debate as my bid? I knew those questions stemmed from the long-held belief, and pipe-dream, that I could somehow wiggle my way into the semifinal rounds of the national tournament. It was hard not to: doing so would be the ultimate speech and debate achievement, a national crowning of validation. When I convinced myself that those questions were irrational thoughts to make myself feel guilty, my brain instead turned its idea of perfectionism back onto itself. I began re-debating the round I had just lost in my head, imagining if I had said this there and this here. I was doing what I always did, analyzing and picking over my mistakes. The reflection I gained was immediate: debate brought out the worst part of myself, the nasty perfectionist that could never treat himself with compassion. Instead of accepting the fact that bad rounds exist and that luck sometimes works against our favor, I placed the burden back on my own mistakes and failures. Instead of celebrating my incredible success of being at nationals, I was picking apart every little instance that went wrong. Speech and debate, for six years, had made the critical lens of how I perceive myself sharper and wider, and not in a healthy way. Not only does this lens exist within myself, but it exists within how I compare myself to others.
On a fundamental level, the speech sphere in particular does not promote healthy competition. For the first couple years of my career, I focused solely on taking pieces that would help me break at tournaments. What do judges like? What do judges not like? In asking myself these questions, I failed to take into account my own personal enjoyment with performing. The result was simple: I regularly broke at the cost of almost immediate burnout. I wasn’t excited to perform, to come to class, to go to tournaments every weekend. In hindsight, these effects all have to do with flaws of the program that possibly cannot be fixed. The first, and most pressing issue, is the incredibly performative nature of speech. While a paradox/oxymoron on a first read, the concept is simple. In DI, pieces that scream and rile up the audience will break. In HI, the most unhinged and zany pieces will break. In Poetry/Prose/Oratory, the pieces that deal with modern socio-political issues will have a leg above the rest and will break. While of course this is not a set rule, I can’t count how many times the quietly reflective DI pieces didn’t break; the witty and conversational HI didn’t break; the oddly charming poem about cats didn’t break. Sure, while the issue could boil down to judge bias, it’s more than that, more than the overly-rehearsed gestures and blocking. My favorite movie, La La Land, is a perfect example of this concept. The lead, played by Emma Stone, gives a very quiet, humanistic, and reflective performance. She never goes nuts, she almost never screams, and she doesn’t have a definitive “Oscar” clip, but Stone still managed to win the Oscar for Best Actress. If the speech world is trying to be reflective of the professional industry, it’s abysmally failing. The shock value and rehearsed nature of it all damages the integrity of the NSDA, and it is something that they have recognized but never tried to concretely address. The second issue is the pressing nature of the competition of itself. While a feature of the program, it directly allows students to compare themselves to others, to scrutinize their flaws, to pit themselves against one another. Art becomes competitive, and art becomes objective--two statements that should never exist.
While I don’t know personally how to solve these issues at the moment, I only know how my process of healing is going. It’s going to take me a while to simply enjoy performances again: to not compare them to one another; to try not to rank them in my head; to not analyze their every flaw; to not rate their speech voice. I’m exploring the ways in which I can start to write poetry without that performative lens, to meditate with my words instead of performing them. I am rebuilding my dreams and reconstructing them to not make it a competition with others. I am coming to terms with the reality we currently live in, and that involves moving on from the past. I don’t know the answers even then for myself, but I know what I need to fix.
Some aspects of my life will always be true: I will come back to judge, I will still be involved with this program, and I will somehow find my way to an in-person nationals tournament in one capacity or another. Ultimately, though, the change starts with us. It starts with those who have gone through this program, who know the stress and subconscious damage it can cause. Only then can it be rebuilt for a more equitable environment.
Clayton Kincade (he/him)