Thousands of Students Compete in Birmingham to be Top Speaker

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For more than 4,000 high school students in Birmingham this week, their words carry more weight than usual. That’s because they’re here for the National Speech and Debate Association’s national tournament. Almost 50 of those competitors are from Alabama. One of them is Maggie Rogers

There’s a simple reason Maggie began competitive speaking.

“Well my mom kind of forced me into it,” says Maggie.

Her mother says it was more like nudge or strongly suggested. In any case, her mom had done speech in high school and thought it would be good for her daughter. Maggie had her own reaction.

“I thought it was an opportunity to say ‘I told you so Mom. This is not what I wanted,” says Maggie. “But that kind of backfired on me.”

That’s because Maggie, who was a sophomore at Vestavia Hills High School at the time, started doing well. The speech bug bit. Her junior year she qualified for the National Speech and Debate Association nationals in Salt Lake City.  Now having just graduated from high school, she’s at nationals for a second year in a row. Her mom, Kathy Rogers, is of course proud of her daughter.

“It became a different kind of I-told-you-so moment didn’t it?” says Rogers. “I got to say it.”

Monday morning, as the competition started at Huffman High School, the hallways are thick with students dressed like members of a corporate board. You can pick out the coaches because they’re in much more relaxed dress.

Kathy and Maggie walk to her next round, which happens to be in a weight room. At a huge tournament, you use every space.

Maggie Rogers though has been doing her own version of pumping iron to get to this point. She went to speech camp. She would practice on weekends. She continually recited her piece.

“I would do it in the hallway walking to class,” says Maggie.

She used online coaches. She would recording herself and listen back.

“I think some of the kids on my team think I’m crazy cause speech is my life, but I love it,” says Rogers. “If you love something that much, you’re going to work at it.”

Many competitors practice by delivering their speeches facing a wall.

Andrew Yeager,WBHM
Many competitors practice by delivering their speeches facing a wall.

What Maggie has been working on is actually not debate. It’s what’s called an individual event, specifically dramatic interpretation.

That’s where a student puts together a ten-minute dramatic performance, generally a selection from a play. Competitors will pantomime actions and change their body and voices for different characters. But they mostly stand in one place.

Maggie’s piece portrays a doctor at a hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

During the competition, she performs the piece in front of a pair of judges and other competitors. She does this for a day-and-a-half, over and over again. In between rounds she keeps her lips limber with vocal exercises, makes sure each bobby pin is in place and reads an encouraging text from a teammate.

After the sixth round, the competition narrows. Only the top 60 will advance to the next round or “break” as the lingo goes. It’s bittersweet, Maggie says, because you’ve spent all year working on a piece that you may never perform again.

All those kids in suits cramming the hallways now pack into the Huffman High School gym waiting to see who will make the cut. Maggie chats with two friends. They watch a man on a ladder waiting to hang the results across the unopened bleachers.

“The anticipation of them climbing up the ladder and rolling it down is kind of terrifying, but exciting,” says Maggie.

Finally, they’re up. Kids yelp, cheer and hug. Maggie and her friends move closer trying to see. What they find isn’t what they hoped for.

Maggie didn’t break. She didn’t make it.

She’s quiet for a moment, then reflects on the fact she’s been to this national tournament two years straight.

“I’m excited. A little disappointed. But mainly excited and just, like, proud,” says Maggie.

Students crowd the gym at Huffman High School to see if they advanced beyond the preliminary rounds.

Andrew Yeager,WBHM
Students crowd the gym at Huffman High School to see if they advanced beyond the preliminary rounds.

For Maggie Rogers this isn’t the end of her speech career. She plans to compete in college and is already in touch with her future teammates. In fact, she says, as soon as this week is through, she’ll start working on a piece for next year.

Final rounds at the National Speech and Debate Association’s national tournament are Thursday afternoon and Friday at the BJCC. You can watch online here.

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