“The one activity that best prepared me for future success”

Ketanji Brown Jackson

by Greg Cunningham

The influence of high school speech competition on Ketanji Brown Jackson

High school speech and debate is one of the best kept secrets in American education. Most people have no idea that from late September until April or May, on just about every Saturday morning, thousands of students around the country make their way to a high school to compete in speech or debate events. Tournaments take over the school, utilizing every classroom, conference room, and even storage closets for 10 hours or more, sometimes lasting both Saturday and Sunday. To excel at these activities, students have to have the energy and stamina of a cross-country runner.

The payoff is beyond measure. Students who have participated in speech or debate have gone on to successful acting careers, as did Adam Sandler; television careers, like Stephen Colbert; election to the US Senate, like Elizabeth Warren; musical stardom, which explains why Bruce Springsteen loves to talk between songs; and nomination as the first Black woman on the US Supreme Court, like Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Before going any further, it’s worth making a distinction between a speech team and a debate team. At some schools, they run in conjunction with one another. Students float between speech and debate events and are coached by the same coaches. Some tournaments offer both speech and debate events. Students cannot usually compete in both at the same tournament, but it brings both communities together.

For other programs and tournaments, speech and debate are completely separate teams. A school may offer speech but not debate and vice versa. Some who offer both have separate teams and separate coaches. Many tournaments, especially at the local level, offer only speech or debate events on a given day, but not both.

Speech and debate events, while rooted in the same communication tenets, are very different. Debate events are just as they sound: different forms of discourse with timed responses and varying forms of evidence requirements. Speech events are more varied. A student may have the opportunity to research and write her own speech, or to choose a story or play to interpret and perform, often portraying more than one character.

The media have mentioned that Ketanji Brown Jackson was part of the debate team in high school, but this is inaccurate. As a high school senior, she was a National Catholic Forensic League (NCFL) Grand National Champion in Original Oratory– a speech, not a debate, event. As a high school junior, she was an NCFL National Finalist in Dramatic Performance, also a speech event. Speech and debate were combined on the same team at the school she attended, Miami Palmetto High School, but Jackson competed only in speech events.

Her Original Oratory speech was about overcoming fears, something Jackson has most likely experienced as a lawyer, a public defender, and a federal judge. We have just watched her sit by herself at a table and face hours of hostile questioning from half of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her Dramatic Performance piece was the Neil Simon play Fools in which, by contemporary accounts, she had audiences rolling in the aisles as she performed numerous characters. One might think a Supreme Court nominee would have been more suited for the debate team, learning how to research and formulate arguments on multiple topics, debating both sides of an issue. But speech events might have an even more practical application for the field of law: helping students learn to connect with and relate to an audience. Whether speaking to members of a jury, to lawyers from the bench in a federal courtroom, or to senators and the nation during confirmation hearings, connecting to an audience is a highly valuable skill.

Debaters are so focused on citing as much evidence as possible during the limited time they have to present their case that best practices in speaking skills are often ignored. Not that students don’t learn speaking skills in debate; but in order to squeeze in as much information as possible, they must talk fast in a way that judges will understand.

In speech events, connecting with the audience is everything. In order for a performance to hit on all levels, the audience has to feel the same emotions as the presenter, whether he is speaking his own words or interpreting a character. This skill seems to have served Jackson well in her legal career. Her opening statement to the Judiciary Committee was 10 minutes long, the exact maximum length allowed in high school Original Oratory. It sounded a bit like a speech you might hear if judging an event: “[Law] is supposed to allow all people — all people — to live together in a society where they have so many different views, so many different needs, to live together in a way that is more harmonious, that is better, so that they can work productively together.”

Most importantly, speech and debate events both help students gain confidence, which Jackson affirmed during her opening statement. “I have also had extraordinary mentors, like my high school [speech and] debate coach, Fran Berger, may she rest in peace. She invested fully in me, including taking me to Harvard — the first I’d ever really thought of it — to enter a speech competition. Mrs. Berger believed in me, and, in turn, I believed in myself.”

As a student at Miami Palmetto High School, one of the few students of color enrolled there at the time, finding and building confidence would have been a key skill learned in speech competition. In a 2017 lecture, as reported by the New York Times, Jackson recalled, “That was an experience that I can say without hesitation was the one activity that best prepared me for future success in law and in life. I gained the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to learn at an early age.”

Speech and debate students around the country can find inspiration in Jackson’s nomination. Seeing her testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, knowing that she once competed in the same events and even at some of the same tournaments, helps these students realize that anything is possible, especially when using the communication skills they have learned. Long hours and hard work today will translate into great achievements tomorrow. Though all students do not aspire to careers in law, politics, or entertainment, seeing the success of other speech and debate alumni can only augment the confidence they are already gaining.

Shayan Raza, a 2019 graduate of Needham High School and former member of the Needham Speech and Debate Team, was recently elected Student Body President at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has aspirations similar to Jackson’s. Shayan was an NCFL Original Oratory National Champion runner-up in 2018, speaking about the stereotypes and discrimination Muslims face every day. As evidence he used his own experiences while growing up. He recently read a statement of Jackson’s from her high school yearbook: “I want to go into law and eventually have a judicial appointment.” He responded with a statement of his own: “Someday, I’m going to ask her about that national championship speech. You can hold me to that promise.”

I fully expect that at some point in the future, someone will be writing about Raza’s nationally recognized Original Oratory speech as he gears up for his own Supreme Court nomination hearings, because inspiration has no limit.

Greg Cunningham is a speech coach at Needham High School and president of the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League. He was president of the National Catholic Forensic League from 2012 to 2014.

Image attribute: https://www.whitehouse.gov/kbj/, https://mobile.twitter.com/palmettoSHS, https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=266669068794436&set=a.266125395515470, 1988 The Palm Echo/Miami Palmetto Senior High School Year Book.

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