18 April 2018

An Open Letter to Speech Alumni

To My Speech Kids (because no matter how long it's been, you're always my kid),

There's never time to say everything I want to say. I live under the belief  life is best lived without holding back. I've never been afraid to say what I think (or feel). If feelings make you uncomfortable, this might not be for you. But our feelings are, at the most profound level, what connect us as human beings. They are the things that make all the other noise of the world beautiful and important. We should never be ashamed of what we feel. I hope that's something you learned from me by now.

This is for all my speech alumni, and most importantly, to all those beautiful voices who are poised on the precipice of becoming speech alumni in just a few short days.

The end of the season is upon me once again, so nostalgia is in full force. As I sift through old critiques, newspaper articles, and seemingly endless photographs, I am battered by a barrage of old memories. I find myself suddenly back in schools I haven't been in in years, with students who I haven't seen in months (or years), on uncomfortable bleachers, on plane rides, on a national stage. When I graduated from my own high school speech team 16 (JESUS) years ago, never did I think I would coach. It wasn't a part of my plan. Yet somehow, all these years later, I find myself in the midst of state preparations, nationals paperwork, and more love than I ever imagined possible. I'm not quite sure how it all happened, but I know that I am profoundly grateful it did.

I love teaching. I love my students. And I believe passionately in what I do in my classroom. But coaching speech--this weird activity so few understand--is something entirely different. It transcends anything I could have expected when I started. I know the good I do here is what I am meant to do. I know that this activity--you and your words and your voices--are what I am supposed to be doing. You are my green light at the end of the dock. You are the reason I have pulled through hard days. You are the reason I have braved snowy roads and glare ice to get to coaching sessions. You are the reason that I have faith that, despite what our country looks like now, the future is going to be brighter. You are the lights of my life.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the country was apparently shocked to discover that teenagers can be brave, articulate, and powerful. They were shocked to discover that you have voices and know how to use them. I wasn't. To me, the wave of students speaking out after Parkland felt natural because on a daily basis I get to work with some of the most eloquent, passionate, and intelligent people on the planet. That fact that so many of you can't vote yet is irrelevant. Coaching speech introduced me to people who I love like my own children. I've never doubted the power of young people because you all show me, every single day, your strength. You are all a fearsome sight to behold. As you head off into the world--or are already there--know that it is yours for the taking. The world is going to be a better place for you being in it. Mine is.

After four years of working with you, it's hard to imagine our team or my life without you. I am notoriously bad at goodbyes. The selfish part of me looks at the departing faces and thinks, "How dare you?" Yet I also know the world needs you. The world needs your intelligence, your wit, your loving hearts. It needs your voices. So I'll say goodbye.

There is something, after all, that makes it easier: what you all leave behind.

You see, I love speech because I believe passionately in the power of words. I believe voices can move mountains. I believe words make a difference. And I sincerely believe there is nothing more powerful--or more important--than learning to use your own voice, in knowing that you are important and powerful and deserve to be heard. We compete each week, and we certainly celebrate those successes, but in the end that's not what it's about. Your awards do not make me proud of you. I've coached people to great success who still disappointed me. These are people who are here only for the accolades, the attention, the college application boost. And by and large, those are the people who fade away from our memories. The team forgets about them. I forget about them.

We don't remember trophies.

We remember passion. We remember support. We remember love.

As our team raised money this year to head to Boston, I was so shocked (and honored) by the donations that poured in from former team members. Y'all are some of the brokest people I know, but here you were giving back. Four of our five captains from last year donated to this year's trip. Some of our donors graduated so long ago they no longer know a single competitor. It says a lot about our team that you're still committed and invest in us. The faces change yearly, but the work we do here does not. Thank you for believing in that.

And thank you to those passionate individuals who bought in to the message and worked week after week, year after year, to perfect your words not because you wanted the 1, but because you believed in what you were saying. Thank you for moving mountains and teaching other people (including me) how to move them with grace and humor. Thank you to those who so tirelessly modeled what sacrifice, commitment, passion, and dedication look like to new generations. Thank you for letting me in--for trusting me enough to take risks and be vulnerable. Thank you for letting me in beyond speech and allowing me to get to know you so well as people outside the four walls of this high school. Thank you to the many individuals who continue to allow me to be a part of your lives long after the last award was handed out. It is a privilege to have been your teacher and your coach.

It is an honor to now be your friend.

We spent four years together in gyms around Minnesota, in auditoriums across the country. We spent four years in uncomfortable desks, hard bleachers, and squeaky theater seats. We spent four years hugging each other with every success--and every failure. We laughed so hard our sides ached. We squeezed hands through tense award ceremonies, practiced in awkward hotel rooms and planes, and cried more tears (more good than bad) than any of us can count. Life in the speech community is impossible to really explain to someone who hasn't lived it, and that's something we'll always share. There are so many moments--quiet ones in hallways without words, noisy ones in crowded gyms, and everything in between--that I hold close to my heart. I couldn't possibly name them all. Just know you're there. Know you always will be.

So next year (and for many years after that) I'll sit in bleachers with new faces around me. You won't be there anymore. That fact still, at times, makes me breathlessly sad. But just know, wherever you go, I'll still be cheering. I'll still be in the (metaphorical) bleachers rooting for you. I'll still be here.

And just know that always--always--there's a seat for you with Elk Speech. You're part of the alumni family now.

You will always have a home.

With so much love and gratitude,
Ms. H

20 February 2018

Moving Mountains and Burning Bridges: The Power of Words

Words can move mountains. That's what I tell my speech students--their words can change the world. They can hurt or heal, break or bond. They have power. I'm acutely aware of the fact that what we say to others lingers far after the words are said; words have a way of worming themselves into the very fabric of our being and becoming a part of us. When those words wound, we carry that pain far longer than even we suspect. Words are particularly insidious weapons because too often, we fail to recognize the myriad of ways they'll follow us. I try to be mindful of that. I try to remember, in my daily interactions, to keep my words kind--or as kind as I can in a situation. I admit I fail more often than I would like, but I do my best to make sure the words I leave behind me will make people feel powerful, important, heard, supported. At the worst of times, I try to leave behind words that at least won't do any damage.

Words can move mountains. But they can also burn bridges.

This weekend, I burned a bridge. It was one I would rather not have burned, but also one I had no plans to cross again, so perhaps it doesn't really matter. What matters is that, for the first time in a long time, I said things that I didn't--and don't--have any intention of fixing. I don't know how long those words will linger with the person I said them to; our words do the most damage to those who respect us and value our opinions, neither of which is true in this case.

But still.

This person and I have had a tumultuous relationship, at best. We've been friends, at times very close friends. I still believe, despite everything, that I know this person better than almost anyone, but in the end, that's just not enough. The relationship was marred by clashing communication styles, piles of hurts that were never healed or even addressed, and a fundamental difference in the ways we believe people should be treated. It turned toxic long ago. I first started thinking about the necessity of walking away in August. There were a couple false attempts--both of which felt genuine at the time but proved to be short-lived. Everyone in my life urged me to cut ties. I went into 2018 with the resolution that I was not going to let anyone make me feel unimportant, disposable, or less than. And this weekend, that resolution was put to the test.

There are some moments in our lives when we just have to say enough. And this weekend, standing in the Science Center at Harvard University, I had that moment when someone I cared about--someone I had supported and cheered for and helped for four years--looked me right in the eyes and told me I didn't matter. I wasn't important. I was disposable.

Despite the up and down of our friendship, I have never said anything to this person that was designed to hurt. Even at my worst, I kept what I thought to myself. When insults were hurled my way--when I was told I was a bad coach and teacher, that I was messy, annoying, stupid, petty, immature, overdramatic and weak--I still held my tongue. I carried those words with me and they did more damage than I care to admit. My struggles with anxiety over the fall stem from a lot of the pain  from that relationship. I gathered up that hurt and I dealt with it on my own. But I kept those words in. While I didn't want much of anything to do with this person going into this weekend, I wanted to end quietly. I wanted to gradually fade away. The friendship carried a lot of baggage, but it also carried a lot of really important memories, and I never wanted those tainted by anger or pain.

Well, that's not how it turned out. But some memories just aren't meant to be cherished, I suppose. I'll make new ones. Better ones. With better people.

I wasn't going to cross that bridge again. So I lit it on fire.

I still didn't say everything I wanted to say. I kept a lot that I think--the pettiest and cruelest--to myself. But I said enough. I told him he was mean, selfish and uncaring. I called out months of gaslighting, manipulation, avoidance, and selfishness. I told him he used people for his own gain. That he disregarded other people's opinions. That he was awful.

And then I blocked his phone number and walked away.

It feels weird and profoundly uncomfortable to me to leave those as the last words I say. But, if I am honest, I didn't say anything untrue. I didn't say anything that--in my opinion--wasn't deserved. And I didn't say a single word that, if given the chance, I would take back. Maybe someday it'll do some good and he'll change the way he treats people. That'd be nice, if unlikely. In any event, it felt good to finally stand up for myself. After months of being gaslighted and manipulated, it felt good to defend my own reality and not let him continue to deny it. It just felt good.

And that's the way words work. They burned a bridge this weekend. But at the same time, they moved mountains for me. There's no going back, but for the first time in a long time, I feel as though I can move forward easier. As if I can breathe easier. I moved a mountain off my chest this weekend. It doesn't change my fundamental belief that we need to be careful with our words, or that the kindest word is almost always the best word. But in that moment, it was more important to be kind to myself, even if that meant my words were cruel. Was I justified? I don't know, maybe not. Maybe I'll regret it someday. Maybe that will become a burden I'll have to carry.

But the bridge is burned.

So it's a mountain I'll just have to move.