A circle of teenagers in sharp suits stands near a busy road on the East High School grounds shouting at the top of their lungs.
“To sit in solemn silence on a dull, dark dock. In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock. Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock from a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block! Short sharp shock! Lifelong lock!”
The tongue twister gets them hyped for the national speech and debate competition qualifiers that start in a few minutes.
But first someone interjects.
“Cheap and chippy! I want to hear e-ver-y sin-gle word and I want to see your faces do this … Again!”
It’s Anna Steed, STRIVE Prep - RISE’s spirited speech and debate coach and teacher. She walks around the circle shooting each kid a fierce look, pumping her fists in the air. The students chant again, jumping on one leg, then the other, hands alternately reaching for the sky.
The circle closes in. Steed asks the seniors for a last word before her team from a small charter school in northeast Denver heads inside to compete against decades-long powerhouses like East High and George Washington High.
There’s Bresean Chambers who transferred from basketball into speech and debate in his final year.
“I came from basketball, but I would have to say, with my whole heart, this is the most fun I’ve ever had with any club I’ve ever been in,” he tells his teammates.
And Alexander Hernandez Gonzalez who suffered from debilitating social anxiety all his life until he discovered speech and debate as a freshman.
“This activity has changed my life,” he tells his teammates tearfully. “Just building connections with people I never ever imagined building connections with.”
And the very last word goes to senior Ariana Nungaray-Arias. She’s a state champ. She’s qualified for nationals the past three years. She wonders if this weekend will make it four.
“I have dedicated the last four years of my life to speech and debate,” says the confident 18-year-old. “I want to go out with a bang.”
Will some of them make it to the national competition? This speech and debate program led by an effervescent and accomplished teacher has already netted a case full of trophies.
Seven years ago, Steed wanted a class that would push kids creatively. That wasn’t telling them what to learn. Where learning was self-driven and organic.
“This is a class where you can see where learning makes sense for you,” she said. The students begin to reflect on why and what they’re learning in other courses, and begin to formulate their own opinions.
“There’s so many questions that start to materialize in a student’s head about their own learning, what learning is, what they can bring to it when they have speech and debate. It’s a magic class.”
It was a class to give Black and Latino students a chance to excel in spaces they normally wouldn’t have access to. It started as one elective class, not an after-school club because many kids couldn’t stay after school. By their second year, STRIVE Prep - RISE won a state title. Steed added advanced speech and debate classes. They raised funds to compete around the country.
Steed prepares her students for entering mostly white competition spaces.
“The more that I can help students get through the inevitable culture shock that they're going to…. because they're going to college and they're still going to be spaces that are predominantly white. And I want them to just have the memory of making it through, succeeding in a place like that and expressing a story that leaves that place better.”
Steed, who is African American and grew up in Denver’s Cole neighborhood, got her own start in speech and debate as a freshman at East High School. She remembers the national qualifiers, the same as this week.
“I went into one round, I think I choked and coughed at the same time and maybe started to cry and then left…. but I loved it, I don’t know why!”
By sophomore year, Steed was really good at it. She said she loved showing off what literature and history she was reading by weaving pieces into her speeches.
“It just felt like a place where I belonged.”
Now, years later, her students love her.
“I know that no matter what, Steed will always be there for me,” said Ariana.
Bresean said Steed’s like a mother, helping students get a suit if they don’t have one, making sure they’re not hungry.
“We literally call her Mama Steed.”
Let’s go back a few days. The kids are in class doing last-minute tune-ups to their pieces before the weekend competition.
Bresean Chambers’ piece is about police violence from a Black teen perspective.
“And as your foot touches the pavement you’re met with eight cops with their guns all aimed at you,” he whispers at the front of the class and then booms: “GET ON THE GROUND AND SPREAD YOUR LEGS! As you comply and the cold handcuffs wrap around your wrists, you think, am I a criminal? Should I run? But you did nothing wrong…….To make amends, the cop says ‘hey man, when you get to the NBA, you should get me some tickets.’”
The students weave other artists' writings, poems and songs into their work. They pick topics, traumas, insights, and humor that have meaning for them. There are pieces on Mexico’s national sport, the neuropsychological phenomenon synesthesia, breastfeeding in public, domestic violence, and deep fakes — digitally altered videos. Many students say speech and debate has changed their lives, made them more confident and curious.
“Speech and debate is above all an intellectual activity,” said Denisse Gonzalez-Marquez. “It really challenges and encourages you to think deeper and develop your own conclusions about the world.”
Going to competitions where other students were mostly white was nerve-wracking for some of the students at first.
“It was sort of like a cultural shock, just being in a different environment with different people than what we're used to seeing around us,” said Nevaeh Reyes-Acevedo. “It kind of makes you have imposter syndrome because you're like, ‘Oh, do I actually belong here?’”
She said but then you think: What am I going to do to compensate, to better myself? She said you fake it until you make it, until you know you belong. Co-captain Ariana said the speech and debate community is very accepting and welcoming – and that made it easier.
Alex is mid-sentence in his performance about the choice of privilege when he’s interrupted by a, 'Thank you, thank you very much.'
Steed, in the voice of a tired time-keeping judge, tells team captain Alex that his time is up. Alex has been rewriting this script for weeks, wordsmithing, getting it to a place where “it can speak my message truly.”
He remembers being amazed at his first competition.
“When I was done with my piece, it was eye-opening to see that I really do have control of the entire room and people's attention for about 10 minutes.”
This was the young man who could barely speak to anyone, even his family, until ninth grade. His twin brother Juan was the opposite. So social and so much energy he was disruptive in class. Then he found speech and debate.“It just helped me express myself in ways I never really thought I could,” he said. In his youth, Juan has practiced the sport of charrería, herding livestock with a big rope. He’s made it the theme of his humor-laced performance.
Steed pushes the students, giving another a last word of advice.
“I know we’re just getting tired. Some of your enunciation… you’ve gotta make that crisper. We’re losing some jokes because of it.”
The weekend national qualifiers for the Rocky Mountain south region is here.
The students are stocked up on foot gel for high heels. Cough drops. Food to help with enunciation and blood pressure. Hair styling powder. Lint rollers. Even a sewing kit.
Denise, in a vibrant blue suit, is listening to 90’s Spanish pop band La Oreja de Van Gough to relax. TikTok videos help Abigail chill in between rounds. Juan makes sure Bresean’s suit coat is buttoned up. Juan has a $2 bill his mom gave him on his 9th birthday in his blazer pocket for good luck.
“Because it’s kind of close to my heart,” he said.
Ariana said she’s really superstitious and wears a necklace, “for witchcraft purposes and then I wear bracelets to protect me from evil eye and all that.”
Time passes. Kids drink Coke. Eat pizza. By 2:30 p.m., Abigail tells me she didn’t make it to the finals.
“Some lines didn’t come out very well, or I was going too fast…or my board (performance prop) falling off during my round,” she chuckles.
All the seniors, though, made it to the final round. Alex said he cried for 20 minutes when found out. He’s thinking of his family. A lucky Guardian Angel coin his twin brother carries in his breast pocket has a prayer on it, something an uncle who died a few years ago used to say a lot. A few days before the competition, Alex says he visited the grave of an older brother who died at 9 months old. Alex promised him he’d qualify for him.
“Everything tied together and it made me very emotional.”
Five minutes until show time. Ariana gives her hair a last brush.
“Miss Steed always says when you look good you feel good, so she’s always like, ‘pamper yourselves a bit before the rounds.’ ”
Alex puts on lip balm.
“’Cause my lips are dry but I made finals in two events so that’s why I’m hydrating my lips.”
Brescian pumps one last spritz of cologne onto himself, gives his purple earring once over in the mirror. And they’re off to the judges to give it their all.
An hour and a half later in the school auditorium, the students wait.
Ariana’s feeling good, but is nervous because, in one event, she went 10.30 to the second, the maximum time you can go. Brecean is worried because he stuttered over a few words and accidentally said, ‘Sorry.’
The moment arrives.
“Qualifying for nationals, from STRIVE Prep - RISE, Bresean Chambers!” the announcer declares.
The mighty team from the small school wins big. Five members of the team are going on to nationals. Ariana qualifies four years in a row.
“Ariana has also done the near impossible,” said Steed. “It's difficult even explaining how difficult that is to do and she did it. During a pandemic, nonetheless.”
Ariana also learns her competition point total for the season makes her the top performer in the nation in her category. No one can catch her at this point.
And best of all, the RISE speech and debate team wins first place in the team award, Speech Sweepstakes.
Soon, Steed will be handing out keychains to this year’s graduating speech and debate class as she always does. “United We Speak” is on one side and “Club 161” (her room number) on the other. And she gives graduating students her phone number, in case they ever just need to “chat it out.”
“You’re 161 forever,” she said.
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