Torrington students at the ready for speech season competitions
TORRINGTON, Wyo. — Most nights at Torrington High School, a small group of students find classrooms and corners and practice their speeches. They perform before empty desks and empty halls, gesticulating and memorizing lines, or holding practice debates against each other in preparation for the competition that weekend.
This is the first year English teacher Stacey Bergeson is coaching the team. She served as an assistant coach for the former coach in years past and took over the position when he moved to Thermopolis. She first became involved in speech when her son, Chase, started taking part, and stepped up to keep the team alive.
“My son got so much out of it,” she said. “I didn’t want to see the program die.”
Gareth Haines, a senior from Southeast, is one of the co-captains of the team and one of the few returning students. The previous three years, he competed in humorous. This year, he’s in a duo with his sister, Theona, based on “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Both are forms of interpretative competitions, he explained.
“You choose from pieces of published material and cut it all together to make a cohesive 10-minute piece,” he said. “You perform it for a room: you act out actions and characters. Your acting has to be good enough to make people imagine the scene.”
Judges particularly want to see that the performer has put thought into each and every part of the speech.
“You have to have lines memorized and clean acting,” he said. “There has to be a purpose in every movement and you have to differentiate between every character.”
He is also competing in informative this year, where the competitors have to write speeches about a topic.
“I’m really interested in astronomy,” he said. “In my physics class, I’ve learned a lot more about astronomy and physics and there’s a lot of stuff in space that has really cool, mind-bending properties that are also extremely deadly, so I thought I’d write an informative about that because it’d be cool.”
The other co-captain, Mckenna Russell, competes in public forum and Lincoln-Douglas debates. She first got into speech after getting concussed playing soccer.
“I got super into it,” she said. “I’m really into debate. I just kind of fell in love with it. It’s my favorite thing on the planet.”
Each month, the debaters are given a topic to research and prepare arguments both for and against. That process, of becoming enthralled in the new topic, is Russell’s favorite part of the process.
“This month, we’re talking about government price control on the pharmaceutical industry, which is something I would have never gotten into before,” she said. “Now I’m super into it, choosing sides and coming up with new opinions.”
Debaters score points by attacking their opponent’s points, using evidence to derail the other person’s arguments. The competition does require some getting used to: in a debate, the pro and con sides are decided by the flip of a coin, meaning Russell does not know if she will be arguing for or against whatever the topic is.
“Last year, I really struggled with it,” she said, “to the point that I’d get into a debate for the wrong side. Now, I’m able to work my cases that, no matter what side I’m on, they work into my own morals. No matter which side I’m on, I can change my contentions so that I am always debating my own morals and I can completely stand behind them.”
Russell also does extemporaneous speaking. Extemporaneous works like this: at the start of each round, she draws a random topic and is given 30 minutes to write a speech on that topic, using whatever research she brought with her, and has to give a seven-minute speech.
“The way that the format is set up, it gives me a break in between debates, and it makes my brain switch out to thinking about other topics in my own way,” she said. “When I write an extemp speech, I can write completely to exactly what I believe. It’s like a workshop for me, where I can work on my speaking skills and improve my debating.”
Kaila Husted, a Torrington sophomore, competes in poetry and poetry oral interpretation. The difference, she said, is that poetry requires a straightforward reading of poems, while POI allows the reader to act out the poem like other interpretive competitions.
“I find it really interesting,” she said. “Interp has always been one of my things. I’m actually quite dramatic. It’s something that I love.”
In poetry, Husted reads “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss, which she said carries themes of racism and segregation. Part of her job as a competitor is to put that subtext into her performance.
“You can read it in a dramatic way and the judges will hopefully get your message,” she said. “Judges are always reading between the lines anyway.”
The team’s numbers are down this year.
“This year has been really hard, because we have a lot of new team members and lost a beloved coach,” she said. “Lyle (Wiley) was very well-loved by all of us, not just the students but the staff as well.”
But, she said, starting with their overnight meet in Casper earlier this year, she thinks the team is starting to gel and work together. Like sports, speech and debate gives students a way to improve themselves.
“It’s different from athletics in that it’s very academic: our speech and debate kids are smart and they do the research on their own,” she said. “They develop a confidence that they don’t necessarily develop in regular high school speaking classes.”