Sunday, February 15, 2009

"This Must Be What It Feels Like to Be Nominated for an Oscar"

Oh, friends, it's been quite a weekend!

Many of you may know that this weekend was the weekend of speech Sectionals here in Illinois. For the past several years, Sectionals has been a site of great disappointment for my speech team. See, we're from a pretty small school. While we're able to have great success during the regular season and even at Regionals, Sectionals is a whole different game for us. Suddenly, we're thrown up against big schools from up north -- DeKalb, Freeport, etc. Those schools have hundreds more kids to draw from, have the money to have multiple coaches (allowing for more intense and individualized attention), and have access to resources my kids just don't often have access to. Schools from my area of the state have a tough time competing even though we have amazingly talented kids.

This year, Sectionals were held in DeKalb, which is an overnight trip for my team since it's about 2-1/2 hours away and leaving the day of the tournament would mean putting the kids on the road at 4am. Since this was sure to be the end of the season for me and the six kids on my team who qualified for Sectionals, I decided to make this weekend a really kick ass time for them. We left for DeKalb at about 1:00 and reached our fabulous hotel in Sycamore about 4:00ish. (I highly recommend the Country Inn and Suites in Sycamore if you're ever needing a hotel in that area. The rooms were big, clean, and so many amenitities. My single room was a SUITE complete with a sitting room, huge king-sized bed, mini-fridge, and microwave. Very nice! After the kids had a chance to settle into their rooms, I took them out for pizza. A "movement" had begun among the kids to convince me to take them to a movie that evening. Initially, the plan had been to go see Friday the 13th, a plan which I and another girl vetoed. The kids then found out that Slumdog Millionaire was playing at the DeKalb multiplex. They had a winner -- a movie I could not resist! The begging commenced. They were determined -- even after I told them that going to the movie would mean no swimming since the pool would close before we got back. They conferenced over this choice in the car and unanimously chose movie over swimming pool. How could I resist a pleading group of kids who WANTED to go see the very movie I was most desperate to see? (And that's the nice thing about coaching smart kids -- they were begging to see Slumdog Millionaire and not something like The Pink Panther 2.) The movie was absolutely incredible. If you've not seen it, please do! An added bonus for us is that one of the members of our team is Pakistani and was able to translate slang for us and explain some of the cultural references. It was like Pop-Up Slumdog Millionaire.

Saturday morning, we all met in the lobby for a pretty impressive continental breakfast -- a breakfast that included sausage, french toast, waffles, and more. Nerves were pretty high especially among the seniors who were staring at the end of their seasons and their speech careers. (My two co-captains, Hassan and Shai, had been close to tears at dinner the night before -- as was I as one of them asked me, "How are we going to make it without you?") Added to our anxiety was the fact that Marcela, our Radio speaker, had woken up sick -- including a weakened voice. I managed to encourage her to try to compete anyway, telling her that she would kick herself later for getting that far and not at least trying, asking her to just give me ten minutes (Radio speakers go for just 5 minutes per round). We pumped her full of slippery elm and sent her on her way. Between rounds, Shai, who is the only four-year member of the team (and the only four-year Sectional qualifier), was pretty despondent, telling me how good her competition was and revealing how plagued with self-doubt she was. While she has been to Sectionals four years in a row, she's never made it to finals at Sectionals. I gave her a pep talk, telling her that she was just as good, if not better, and to not give up, to go in there and do her absolute best.

At 2:00, the list of finalists was posted. This was a time of some heartbreak for my kids. Hassan, who was our only Sectional finalist last year, did not break to finals, so his speech career was officially over. Julien, my Belgian exchange student, had also not made it, and his European melancholy kicked in. Kianna, who was our "surprise" qualifier in Impromptu, missed breaking into finals by just one point, but she and I both took solace in the fact that she is just a junior and will have another shot next year. We did, however, make it to finals in two events -- Shai broke in Original Oratory and Marcela broke in Radio. I found Marcela and asked her if she could give me five more minutes, and the smile that spread across her face as she realized what that request meant let me know she had it in her. After seeing her own name on the finals posting, Shai came and found me, tears in her eyes, and we hugged and cried for a minute or two before we realized she had to go speak. I was forbidden from going to see her (Last year at Regionals, I went to see her perform and was witness to a pretty massive "choking" as she drew a huge mental blank. We both decided that I was a jinx and mutually decided that I was to never go see her compete again!), so we parted ways as she went to speak and I went to hang out with my assistant coach, the very cool Seth. (Seth is a former student who needed some volunteer hours and was a huge help to me. Kianna's success in Impromptu is largely due to his coaching, I believe. Plus, he made several awesome mixed CD's to be the soundtrack to our journey. There's a lot of fun to be had driving down the highway with a carfull of kids singing along to "Mama Said Knock You Out.")

It became a very long afternoon as Marcela and Shai went into their rounds. I tried to console myself with the fact that Marcela is a junior and will be a powerhouse next year and get another chance. I was more anxious for Shai, knowing how much it would mean to her to go to State, knowing that not making it would be so hard on her. She came out of her final round feeling confident that she had done her best but with no expectations beyond feeling sure she would not get last place. She said to me, "Making it to finals is enough for me. That's the best I've ever done, and that's a good way to end."

By the time we went into the awards ceremony, I had two anxious girls. Marcela felt pretty confident but had the sort of peace of mind that comes with being a junior in finals -- the fact that she had rallied health-wise enough to compete was her victory of the day. Shai was visibly nervous but playing that "As long as I don't get last, I'm fine" game. To make the tension even greater for all of us, their events were announced in the latter half of the ceremony, meaning we had to sit through all these other events waiting to see their fate. Soon, though, it was Shai's turn onstage.

For those of you not versed in the speech world, the top three in each event qualify for State. So there is this moment of great drama and tension as the 4th place finisher is announced. Will your name be called and your season end then and there? Or will your name not be called, meaning you earn the trip to "the Big Show" next weekend? The moment came when there were four people from Original Oratory standing on stage, and Shai was one of them. The rest of us were sitting there in the audience, shaking, praying, tight with nerves. And then the coach from DeKalb announced the person who had come in fourth . . . . and it was not Shai. I can't even begin to describe to you all the look on her face as it dawned on her what that meant -- joy, disbelief, even a little fear. She and I locked eyes and the tears were suddenly flowing down both of our cheeks. (I'm seriously crying right now thinking about it) After accepting her second place medal, she came down off the stage and came running for me and we stood there in the aisle just hugging and sobbing with joy. It was perhaps the greatest moment of my young coaching career. Here was this girl whom I personally recruited for the team when I was assistant coach and she was my top student in my Honors English I class, a girl whom my predecessor had told me would be my "superstar". Being able to celebrate in her accomplishment was overwhelming in terms of the pride and joy I was feeling at that moment. She kept whispering, "When am I going to wake up? I have to be dreaming!" I replied, "Well, then we both are. I won't wake up if you won't."

And then we both snapped into reality and focused on watching to see how Marcela had fared in her event. I had a good feeling about Marcela's chances. A coach who had judged Marcela's final round had seen me before the awards ceremony and had said, "That girl's going to State. She was amazing." As it came time to announce the fourth place finisher, Marcela was still onstage, looking anxious yet confident at the same time. They announced fourth place . . . and it was not Marcela. When she came offstage with her third place medal, she came to me and hugged me -- not tearfully like Shai but joyfully, excited to have earned her place among the top 18 Radio speakers in the State.

I spent most of the drive home last night just sort of mentally pinching myself -- feeling that sort of disbelieving thrill of having my kids earn two spots at State, especially keeping in mind how hard it can be for teams from this area to earn ANY spot, let alone two. I thought to myself, "This must be what it feels like to be nominated for an Academy Award." Or to have coached an Academy Award nominee. Next weekend is just the sprinkles on top of the icing on top of the cake as my girls take their places among the rest of the best the state has to offer, and I'm just along for the ride.

** Since I posted an article from the local paper that included their names, I feel like it might be a little disingenuous to use psuedonyms anymore. And knowing these kids, they WANT the world to know their names!


NICKI said...

You told this tale beautifully. I was nervous for the kids while reading, and I shed a tear of happiness for you and your team. I came from a small school too, and we were always overwhelmed by the sheer size and $$$ that big schools had. Congratulations!
(Oh, and my mom just mentioned that Millionaire movie yesterday. She said it is one of the best she's seen recently.)

Mel said...

Thank you! The small school-big school disparity is constantly a frustration. When we go to tournaments at some of these bigger, wealthier schools, you can just see the envy and heartbreak in the faces of the kids.

As for Slumdog, your mom is right. It's an amazing film! It's funny, dramatic, moving, romantic -- I really loved it.

Jen said...

Congratulations to you and to your kids, Mel! You have clearly given them all the advantages that money CAN'T buy, and in my opinion, those are the ones that really count.