By Lynn Schmeidler

They Came, They Spoke, They Concurred20 Years of Speeches in Scarsdale


When Clyde Tressler, head of the English department at Scarsdale Middle School, addressed the volunteer judges at the school’s first speech contest 20 years ago, there were far fewer faces looking back at him than there were this past evening of April 8. “We are, in some ways, a victim of our own success,” announced Tressler through a bull horn, to an assembly of parents and community members gathered to judge this year’s middle school speech contest. With more than 300 contestants and over 100 judges, this year’s speech contest was by far the largest in its history. “The beauty of the evening is the inclusive nature of it,” Tressler explained. “Everyone who wants to compete does.”

Designed to be an integral part of the English curriculum, the program is very much the same as it was when it began, however. Starting a month before the contest, each seventh- and eighth-grade student prepares a speech in one of five categories: original oratory, dramatic or poetic interpretation, humorous presentation or personal experience. Throughout the unit, teachers work with students to help them select, organize, write and edit their material. Students practice and speak before their classmates and finally decide whether to compete in the evening speech contest. “I’m incredibly impressed by the poise, talent and commitment of the kids at this event,” said Mara Perlmutter, parent and second-time judge of the contest. “The topics the kids cover are much more sophisticated, much more in-depth than I ever would have imagined at this age.” The speeches were as varied as the students themselves. Seventh-grader Mansi Kothari, finalist in poetic interpretation, began hers by comparing the dictionary’s definition of poetry with that of Coleridge’s. She then expertly recited Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”, two poems dealing with a parent’s advice to a child. Eighth-grader Katherine Greenberg competed in the humor category. “My English teacher thought it would be a challenge for me to write satirical humor,” she explained, before presenting her riff on why doctors call what they do “practicing”. Abby Woodham, first place winner for personal experience, spoke of a character she invented for an Internet role-playing game who took on a life of her own when 400 sites sprang up in her creation’s name. Woodham recreated her journey from disbelief to frustration, to surrender, and ultimately to satisfaction. Twelve- and 13-year-olds are often seen in our culture as unintelligible, hormonally charged couch potatoes. Yet through the experience of the speech program, students at the Scarsdale Middle School demonstrate to themselves, their parents and the community that they are competent, committed people with ideas, interpretations and talents. “I wanted to compete because it’s a great experience to set a goal and strive to achieve it,” said eighth-grader Elizabeth Ingriselli, who tied for second place for her interpretation of Joanna Gates’ “11:21 am”, a poem about the Columbine shooting. As adults we often look back painfully on our own middle school years as a time of supreme self-consciousness and vulnerability. This is precisely why Tressler and the English teachers at Scarsdale feel students benefit from the speech competition. The sense of self that is built from writing a humorous speech and making a roomful of people laugh, the sense of validation that comes from expressing an experience of great personal importance and having it met with rousing applause, are not experiences of which middle schoolers can get too much. But is competition good for this age group when they already feel such intense pressure? “Yes,” asserts Tressler. “Everyone goes through the same preparation. They all know what it took and they recognize one another’s achievements.” As for the judges, they also gain from the experience. Matthew J. Callaghan has been a judge of the speech contest since its inaugural year. “I like to find out what kids are thinking at this age,” Callaghan explains. “It’s a good barometer of what’s going on in seventh- and eighth -graders’ minds.” His only regret, he notes more than once, is that he didn’t keep a written commentary over the years. The four-and-a-half hour event begins with two preliminary rounds where students present their speeches to judges who move from room to room. After each round, sixth-grade runners dash between classrooms and the computer center where scores are tabulated by English teachers hurriedly entering numbers into computers. The five highest scoring speakers in each category are then sent into the final round, which is observed by all who are interested. “Humor finalists are always in the auditorium, because so many people want to see them,” says Tressler. Winners are announced at the end, and the next day an assembly is held where the first-place winners present their speeches to the entire school. Although students may no longer dress up for the occasion, as 15-year veteran judge Jim Levinson notes, the speech contest has nevertheless developed into an event in which the community proudly participates. As Clyde Tressler proudly sums it up: “The speech contest gives middle school students a tradition to hold on to, something to remember.”