Let the competition begin

Jeff vonKaenel

Right away, you knew they were nervous. While they sat perfectly still in chairs, their legs, which often did not reach the floor, seemed to be in constant motion. I too would be nervous if I was speaking in front of 50 parents and school officials. But, fortunately, I was only a judge at the Public Speaking Contest District Finals for fifth- to eighth-graders.

It was quite a challenge. Starting with 1,200 students from 23 public schools, our 12 finalists first had to win the competition in their classroom, then their school, then the semifinals and now the finals, which were being held at the Twin Rivers district office.

They chose their own topic. Their speech had to be between two and five minutes in length. They were judged on content and delivery.

Let the competition begin.

There were three students competing at each grade level. The master of ceremonies, Anne Zeman, had the contestants draw straws to determine the speaking order. The fifth graders went first.

Hailey Blagg, from Allison Elementary, spoke in praise of homework. This was a tough topic. But I have to admit, Hailey’s enthusiasm for homework was contagious. If only she was a little older, I’d be trying to hire her onto our sales team.

Back to the contest.

In the sixth-grade competition, there was another Hailey, Hailey Briggs, from Creative Connections Arts Academy. She towered over her two male competitors. Ah, the joys of sixth grade. This Hailey spoke on cyberbullying, but after a minute or so she stopped. She went silent. And then she went back to her seat.

We had no rules for this. The master of ceremonies talked to Hailey. And then everyone agreed to let Hailey try once more. Hailey went back to the podium and began again. She nailed it! She won the sixth-grade competition.

More importantly, we all learned a lesson about getting back up. It was quite a moment.

Bullying and perfectionism were the seventh-grade topics. The presentations were getting stronger. Our winner was Jaziel Maugaotega from Westside Preparatory Charter School, Eastside Campus, who unlike other students did not dress up for the event. But did she come alive when it was her turn to speak about bullying. Her message needs a bigger stage.

The eighth-grade star, Sidrah Sharif, was also from Eastside Campus. Sidrah was wearing a beautiful hijab and she explained to the audience that Muslims are not terrorists. She was a force on stage. After the event, I asked Sidrah if she’d been bullied at school. She said no. Her friends, many of whom have been picked on for other things, stood up for her. She is the only person in her grade who wears a hijab.

I left the competition energized. I was reminded how important activities like speech contests, sports, dances and field trips were to me growing up. Our children need these types of events. And we need to pony up the funds to restore these valuable programs.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.