When Forensics Fails: Or How My Team Fell Apart

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Forensics helped define me in high school.  Speech was not the only aspect of me, but it certainly monopolized a gargantuan portion of my time.  I was the nerd who loved school.  Even now, a year out of college, I adore it still and frequently daydream of obtaining a Doctorate of Literature before I end up like that parrot in a certain Monty Python sketch.  I was involved in theatre - acting and doing tech with equal passion.  Choir, the literary magazine, Group Interpretation (my biggest accomplishment was being student director), Madrigals, a job, and numerous A.P. courses kept my life structured.  Yet nothing ever compared to the amount of dedication I had for Forensics.  For two years I would label myself first a Speechie and then a Theatre Kid.  Because labels and having a niche are fundamental for high school sanity.

I got involved with the Speech team my Sophomore year.  I knew a few people on the team, and because I could never quite get cast in a theatrical show, I thought Speech would let me develop my acting prowess while having fun.  And I fell in love with Speech.  HDA, Prose, working on a piece, the camaraderie, the style of competition and seeing your audience.  All of it drew me in.  It is not so important the what and details of how I became Speech obsessed.  What matters is the end result by Junior year: Team Captain, Organizer of Team Files, Designer of the Team Hoodie, Locker-Sign Creator and Poster, and General Team Aid/Helper.  So I guess "involved" is an understatement.  

However, starting Senior year my Speech world imploded upon itself.  My team had always been...tiny.  On average you could rely on a core of about ten to always be on the bus.  We might not have won any team awards because of our size and Regional placement (our Region in IHSA is notorious for being one of the more challenging collection of schools to break within; filled with schools who's Speech teams are huge and highly developed), but we did score a few medals every tournament.  We were a tight group who traveled between Speech and theatre together.  And we all loved it.  Until Senior year.  

Our coaches realized that most of the team would be graduating, so they frantically attempted a large-scale recruiting campaign.  Of course us Seniors were supportive.  We wanted to see the team continue.  We promoted the team, helped with auditions, and were friendly and encouraging to the Novice.  This behavior is normal and should be expected.  What was abnormal was what followed.  The coaches began to forsake our underdog Varsity (Seniors and a couple Juniors) group and focus all their attention on the Novice.  Everything became real serious and Novice oriented.  Team meetings seemed directed at Novice and keeping them happy.  Meetings also became boring and seemed more like a classroom than an extracurricular meeting for fun competition.  We lost a beloved coach and replaced him with a State winning HI coach; that would have been brilliant except she was far too militant and brash for most people's taste.  A few of the new Novice goofed around too much, took competition lightly, and were disrespectful to Varsity who tried to help them.  Overall, it was a stressful situation where Speech became more like work and less enjoyable.

But this could be understood.  More rules were in place at meetings to keep the Novice in check because they were younger (Freshmen) and needed more discipline.  Militant coaching was done hoping to see us place more; our group of Varsity consistently ranked well and this was going to be our year for Sectional, possibly State.  We all felt it.  For a while us Varsity stuck it out because we loved Forensics and knew this was our year.  Then a whole school assembly changed everything.

It's hard for me to remember the exact details of when this assembly took place.  Was it before or after a Novice-only tournament?  Or did we already have a couple tournaments completed?  It does not matter.  What is important is what happened.  At some point the coaches thought it would be good to call out the names of EVERY NOVICE SPEECHIE, have them rise, and wish them luck in the season.  And that was it.  At no point were the Varsity names called and wished luck.  Our Varsity clan who had literally BEEN the team for two years were not even mentioned.  A few of us were sitting together and at that point turned towards one another and went "what the...!?"

All of us were insulted.  Most quit the team that very day.  The audacity of a school-wide shunning, public humiliation, and symbolic slap to our pride was astonishing.  What was more astonishing was the coaches refusing to admit they did anything wrong.  When most of the Varsity quite, leaving only me and a couple of Varsity, it was questioned.  Reasons were given in justified anger.  I doubt any of the coaches understood.  Unfortunately.

One reason I stayed was because I felt obligated to finish my stay as a Team Captain, but I hardly enjoyed myself.  My Team family had mostly abandoned me (I saw them in the theatre and we were best friends outside of school, thus it made it nearly impossible for the team to feel right with their absence even with a couple of friends who remained).  My drive to find good Prose pieces left me so I took what some coaches and a friend gave me.  One piece I loved enough, the other I just performed.  I tried out DI, had little coaching help because they were Novice focused, thus tried to teach myself, and TANKED and cried my first DI tournament.  I quickly left that event to those better. 

My only solace was performing.  I was still enthralled with taking my audience along on a Prose Adventure.  Prose took me to Sectionals that year, my highest Forensics accomplishment.  My Prose coach Ms. Dee, who had been with me for three years, was so proud.  That win was a testament to not only my work but her support and advice.  (Though, I think we both knew that most of the rank success was due to the majority of work I did outside of scheduled practice.  But I think that is the case of any good performance.  A coach can only take you so far.  Most of the responsibility is yours.  Coaches are there to help fine-tune and be a cornerstone.  Necessary, but YOU should be the real workhorse.)  Still, without her support I might have eventually left the team.  She was the one coach I still enjoyed.  Practice might have somewhat plateaued, but it was the bond formed that continued to grow and kept me feeling responsible to the team.  I am still thankful for her kindness, encouragement, and friendship.

At the close of the season I was ready to be done with Forensics in high school.  I wrote my coaches a letter about the frustrations the Varsity dealt with, what I dealt with, and offered advice on how to avoid this ostracizing in the future.  Written with the best of intentions, and trying to refrain from any harsh words, I never really got a response.  Even know, when I have tried to contact my old head coach to congratulate an Extemp genius who placed at State (and for other reasons), I usually get ignored.  The one reply was cold.  I cannot really be mad about that.  It was a terrible situation, and I probably should have refrained from saying anything.  However, when I feel inclined to speak I do.  Speechie habit.

Why share this?  Catharsis?  Revenge?  No.  I no longer hold any strong, anger related emotions that need to be therapeutically worked through.  Upon reflection I am filled with a bittersweet feeling about my final Speech year.  It should have been glorious, but it was really my Junior year I loved.  I remember the good memories.  Proud as I am of my Sectional achievement, it is my Junior year I cherish.  Senior year was a learning experience.  How to deal with environments you disdain.  How to work with a majority of people you have lost respect for.  How to lead when what you lead is no longer a team you embrace.  I think my title is wrong.  It was ultimately my love of Forensics, and a few friends/coach, who got me through that year.  Forensics didn't fail me.  It was those around me that failed Forensics. 

So I share this with you in hopes that if you are enduring what I have endured that you can still see that regardless of what is happening around you, if you focus on your passion for an event, baggage is nothing.  In the end.    


(a dramatization of what I remember)  

Republished from my personal blog on Blogger.com

When Forensics Fails: Or How My Team Fell Apart by Lisa Schemensky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

I'm sorry this happened to you and your Varsity. I hope the team is at least thriving after that first season of conflict :(

That's dedication to stick with a team even though you felt alienated.

Did you ever get the coach's side of things? Did they ever feel let down by the Varsity for leaving, even though it appears they had a good reason to? It just seems a shame that you guys couldn't have all talked it over before it escalated to that assembly description.

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