The Speech Contest

Charleine Sell

© Copyright 2018 by Charleine Sell

Girl at microphone.

As a shy, skinny, too tall ninth grader, I was devastated to learn I had been selected to give a speech before the whole school

September in St. Petersburg, Florida is always hot and humid, but during my ninth grade year in 1961 at yet another new school, I had a frightening experience that made me shiver with fear. I had attended 7 different schools over the years. The more recent ones were all in the St. Petersburg area; seventh grade at Madeira Beach Junior High, eighth grade at Lealman Junior High, and now ninth grade at Southside Junior High. Needless to say, I was a shy girl, skinny and too tall, who spoke in a whisper in class if I was called upon, and never ever, ever volunteered an answer. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to notice me. I only recall a few things about that year, but the worst experience occurred in English class. I remember my English teacher very well, although I have forgotten her name. It was my favorite class - diagramming sentences, reading Evangeline by Longfellow, writing poetry; I was in heaven. Sometime during that year, though, the school district English teachers decided to hold a speech contest. We were all assigned to write a 750 word paper and the topic had to be “America Faces This Problem”.

I went home and talked with my father, a public school music teacher, and a sweet, wonderful man. He loved his students, he loved teaching, and his students loved him. But as you can imagine, I had occasionally heard over the years how teachers were not paid enough money and that they were under appreciated.

So I set about writing a paper about how this country would be so much better if our money went into improving schools and paying teachers a salary competitive with other professions’ earnings. I ranted and raved about the need to move tax money from our space program, our military, and wherever we could find it to hire only the best teachers and pay them exceedingly high salaries, because they were so crucial to the success of our nation. After all, they produced our doctors, lawyers, and engineers. I asked how we could expect to be successful, if we didn’t make supporting our teachers the highest priority. To me, they were obviously the nation’s backbone, and everything rested on their efforts.

Well, wouldn’t you know. Out of all the English classes at our school, my paper was selected along with 4 others as winners at Southside Jr. High. We were told to memorize our speeches, and then the following week recite them in front of the whole school’s seventh, eighth, and ninth grades! The winner would go to the district contest. We had to stand alone with a microphone, on a wood stage with those heavy dark burgundy drapes, and look out at all those faces staring back at us. I was petrified. What if I opened my mouth to begin and no sound came out! What if I forgot my speech! If only I could shrink or disappear.

The day finally arrived and we five sat on folding chairs on that stage and one by one got up and recited our speeches. With dry mouth, sweaty palms, and not daring to look at the students sitting in the auditorium staring back at me, I said into the microphone, “America faces this problem,” and then launched into my speech. Me, still the shy, too tall, skinny girl who had no voice. But somehow I got through it and finished and sat down.

A few days later I found out that I had won second place! Whew! I was greatly relieved that I would not have to do it again. The poor person who won first place had to compete on the district level, but I was done. And I have to admit, kind of proud of myself. The interesting thing is that I remained that voiceless, shy, skinny, too tall girl.

The next year, I began my high school years in yet another new school, as my dad was lured north to New Jersey. He left behind an annual salary of $7,000 to receive a whopping $10,000 per year. He lasted 5 years before taking a cut in pay and moving back to his beloved Florida. By that time I had completed the first two years of a four year English degree. While my family moved back to Florida, I spent that summer in Africa building schools, no longer shy, nor too tall or skinny.

In retrospect, I realize I won perhaps not so much by my skill, but because the teachers probably got a chuckle out of hearing that they should be more appreciated and certainly paid more. To this day, I continue to believe they are the backbone of our success as a nation.

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