Essay: The Speech

“Who are you?”

“I—I hardly know, sir, just at present— at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that? Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir, because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see.”

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly, for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

“It isn’t.”

“Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet, but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will someday, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little strange, won’t you?”

“Not a bit.”

“Well, perhaps your feelings are different. All I know is, would feel very strange to me.”

“You! Who are you?”

What you just read would have been the intro to a ten-minute long speech selected from a play and performed in a forensics competition. No, it’s not the forensics you would see on your favorite crime drama. In high school, being on the forensics team meant participating in competitive speaking tournaments in which aspiring performers learn to master their art by using their tone of voice, manner of speaking, and bodily position to portray several characters and tell any story they wish. As with any talent-based contest, there is really only one stipulation: impress the judges. This leads performers to craft dynamic, complicated, ten-minute masterpieces that are just as orchestrated as a Broadway play. When I was on the forensics team, my category was Dramatic Interpretation. We liked to call it “Competitive Schizophrenia.” In one tournament I could get completely lost between my characters. Was I “Moliseng Elisabeth Aslope,” or maybe “Hi, I’m Barbie!” or “My names Jack, I’m five.” Watching others perform, I got to see so many different personalities embodied in a handful of people! These speeches transformed competitors from normal, suit-and-tie wearing high schoolers into innocent children, old women with hunched backs, crooked CEOs, or seductive temptresses. Watching someone become so much more than themselves through their speech was beautiful to see and impossible to forget. After my first tournament as a high school sophomore, I was hooked. Forensics kept me from going out on Friday nights, took up every Saturday, made me work hard on Sundays when I just wanted to sleep… and I loved it.

It wasn’t easy. I kept losing, never even placing in the top ten. It took me that entire year to figure out how to compete effectively, and the first time I won first place, I was astounded. Late nights spent perfecting every step, every gesture, every facial expression had led to this—a blue ribbon with gold lettering, a firm handshake from the judges, and a feeling of unparalleled victory. I knew then that being on the forensics team wasn’t just a “college app club.” Pretending to be other people was now a part of my identity, and I excelled at it. I kept winning blue ribbons, firm handshakes, and eventually a gold medal that meant I was going to Washington DC to compete in the grand national forensics tournament. The weight of that medal against my chest and the pride in my mom’s smile told me that pretending was a way for me to succeed.

However, nationals was a completely different game. It wasn’t so hard to keep my multiple personalities in order during regional competitions where I had friends to talk to, but when I reached nationals, I found that people usually didn’t ask for your name. It was easy to forget I had an identity behind what I presented on the stage.

For instance, if someone came up to me in-between rounds, they would say “You’re Looking for Alaska, right?”

Looking for Alaska was the title of my piece, so I would say yes. I would ask them the title of theirs, what it was about, where they were from, but never their name. In forensics, you are your speech, and your speech is you. I remember Suddenly, Last Summer’s overdone acting and Miss Mannerly’s School of Manners’ ridiculous humor. I remember Little Shop of Horrorsbeautiful voice and that The Syringa Tree deserved first place way more than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. And don’t get me started on The Wizard of AIDS. I know that, even now, if I put on a suit and sensible heels I could suddenly slip into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s intro. “Arthur Dent was a six foot tall ape descendant, and someone was trying to drive a bypass through his home.” And that wasn’t even my piece! I could mimic the lines they said with the very same inflections but I could not for the life of me tell you their names. Even so, those were the pieces I loved and the people I befriended. It seems I met some of the realest people when we were all pretending to be someone else.

I can best explain it like this: the most popular piece to perform in forensics is Alice in Wonderland.  It’s easy to see why— colorful characters, a familiar storyline, and a moral ending are the three key components to a good speech. Unfortunately, this means you end up hearing Alice performed over and over and over again, to the point where you start mouthing along to every “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!” But the more you hear it, the more the story becomes a part of you. Suddenly, I’m Alice and when the Caterpillar asks who I am, my inability to respond isn’t daunting in the slightest. If anything, that feeling of uncertainty is familiar and honest. Don’t we all have to ask ourselves who we are? It seems like the world expects you to have a concrete answer, to know who you are before you’ve even had the chance to figure it out. So you choose a role and a label and let them guide your actions, all because you don’t want to let on that you’re still looking for the answer.

Who are you?

I think that’s why we pretend. But, you know, I also think that you can learn the most from people who are more than they seem. Pretending to be something you’re not is the surest way to become a complex individual, and, just like in forensics, complexity creates the best story to tell. What we tend to forget is that we are all an amalgamation of the different people we’ve been and the different people we’ve let into our lives. It doesn’t matter what you seem to be, because you are so much more than that. Your life is filled with lessons taught by the people who are pretending around you, and they will learn from what you pretend to be in return. The roles that make you who you are—athlete, musician, student, brother, sister, friend—they also make you undeniably human.

Unfortunately, I had to quit forensics my senior year. It was too much of a time commitment, and I had to focus on getting into college, so I pretended not to care. It’s funny how you can lose such a big part of your identity when you stop playing at being someone else. Over time, I know I’ll forget the speeches I once knew by heart. I’ll say I was on the forensics team, without bothering to explain that it’s speaking and not science.  But, for today, I am still a collaboration of characters, a coalition of souls inside one body. It’s still easier for me to recite a ten-minute-long choreographed piece than it is to tell the time. I’m still pretending, like we all are. I am still wearing that medal… And the characters I know as well as myself are the confidence in my voice and the strength in my stride. I am smiling, and they are too.

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