I joined speech when one of my best friends decided that she didn’t want to walk down a hallway filled with scary high school students alone. After being very “brave” and walking to the classroom at the end of the hallway, I also joined the speech team, because I didn’t want to wait in the hallway outside of the classroom by myself. This hilarious accident ensured that I would always feel empowered to stand up and speak.
My high school coach, the late Dan Johnson of Raymond Central High School in Nebraska, educated his team on having character (not the character-pops kind, but the work hard when no one is watching you kind) in an effort to teach us the process of winning. While Mr. Johnson’s speech teams were known for their competitive success through his legacy of having one of the most winning teams in Nebraska history, it was the process of winning that he continually reinforced. I can still feel the anxiety and trepidation of wondering if I had my speech (oratory, duo, duet, poetry, drama, HI, OID, impromptu) practiced enough to meet Mr. Johnson’s extremely high, but still within reach, standards when he opened the door and walked into a peer practice or an alumni session on a Wednesday night. Through the character education that I was exposed to in high school, and with Mr. Johnson’s guidance, I found my collegiate home at Hastings College (Mr. J’s alma matter).
When auditioning for my college speech team’s scholarship I went against Mr. Johnson’s advice and I performed my National Forensics League (now National Speech and Debate Association) qualified octa-final humorous interpretation, instead of my college “style” dramatic interpretation. At the end of my audition, a man that also contributed to my love for the activity, John Nash said something to the effect of “that was very good, but we don’t really do that in college”. I was happy to have found a collegiate home where the same refreshing honest critique of my performance would be consistently offered to help me improve on my competitive process. Karma Chavez, an alumna of Hastings College and a renowned communication scholar, provided me with another set of blueprints when she encouraged me during our first-year speech student work-week by nonchalantly mentioning “you could be a national champion if you work hard”, again emphasizing the process of winning, not the winning itself.
In the Spring of my Senior year of college, after applying and being accepted to law school, I had a conversation with Mr. Johnson on the phone about my future plans to practice law. During that conversation Mr. Johnson explained that he had terminal cancer and suggested that I teach and coach instead. After talking with my college coach John Perlich, he agreed, and I quickly submitted graduate school applications so that I could earn my master’s degree while coaching and teaching at the request of both of my life changing coaches. Following my late graduate school submissions, I attended my last competitive speaking tournament of my speech career. After earning my National Championship in Prose, I couldn’t wait to call Mr. Johnson and tell him how hard I worked and the process that I followed to earn that honor.
Mr. Johnson passed away while I was attending graduate school, but his profound impact of using speech as a vehicle to teach all of his students about character and the process of winning has influenced my lifelong passion of helping others through developing a curriculum that encourages students to be responsible for their actions, to control what they can control, and to work hard when nobody is looking. I have had a number of coaches help me SPEAK2compete in speech and life, and in an effort to honor their legacy, educate children, and fight for speech and debate activities I feel it necessary to disseminate as many of the lessons that I have learned as possible so that more young people can SPEAK2compete.