When you’re under that kind of pressure and strain, you start mercilessly prioritizing and looking at your life. At least, I did. It’s a refreshing exercise, to be recommended when you have far lesser reasons to do it.
In the last year I looked around my life and realize I do a lot of unrewarding crap entirely out of a sense of tradition and obligation.
Speech has been my major diversion and my major activity for most of my adult life. I’ve been involved at the highest and the lowest levels, which are remarkably similar. I’ve run Nationals, I’ve coached champions, I’ve coached teams that bombed and failed, and I’ve cleaned up the cafeteria after the tournament is done. I’ve built up and run several of the best tournaments in the Northeast, perhaps even the country. I’ve changed extemp, and changed what students learn in extemp; hopefully I’ve made it much more rigorous and interesting. I’ve done a lot, for a part-timer.
What the last year has brought into sharp focus, however, is that I’m tired of it, bored of it. I’ve been identified as a rare commodity: someone in speech who has my organizational act together. I have the temperance to run big events: organized enough to keep them running, but free enough to not allow obsessions over minor problems derail tournaments. You need an apathetic brand of OCD to be a good tournament director. But I’ve been around long enough that my responsibilities piled up; since I’m someone who can get things done, lately I’ve been doing little else.
Running the state league was Not Much Fun. I did it for two terms in a row, which is twice as many terms as anyone else has done in a while. It’s essentially an ocean of expectations offset by a puddle of resources. Change is difficult there, especially changes that would have made the league easier to run. Instead, the Board is dominated by the same tired agendas that boil down to who gets which trophies and why. Several of the people were willing to go to any length to achieve those agendas. It became depressingly constant, and I don’t need it. There’s a lot of good in the state league, but the people running it don’t get to experience a lot of it. And I’ve realized, there’s not much good I can do with it anymore.
Running invitational tournaments is better, as you get to do whatever you want to. But attending coaches also treat you as if you owe them something, when I decidedly do not. To some degree, the speech world doesn’t deserve well run tournaments, because t0o many of its members do their utmost to make them impossible to pull off. In debate we talk about how the same 2% of schools cause 98% of the problems; in IEs there are far far more trouble-making programs. The tournaments were worthwhile and the work I did do was more immediately realized. So I’m going to cut back, not leave altogether. I found an eminently able successor to handle Columbia in Joe A. I’m also skipping Princeton this year, having already formed a committee to take over. A permanent solution for Princeton still awaits, but we’ll do right by it.
Penn remains a good weekend for a great cause, and Yale is my premier tournament, so I’ll keep those for now.
And finally and hardest, speech coaching had lost a lot of its appeal. The kids were great and fun like they’d always been, but I began to dread speech itself. I spent a whole year not really wanting to go to practice, even though I usually had a good time once I got there. I’d mastered extemp, the speech event I do best; but it’s been years since I’ve seen a new idea out there that wasn’t mine first. I have an image in my head of what extemp should be, and coaching at this point is not creation, but teaching each student to approximate that Platonic ideal to the limit of their ability. There’s not much joy in that, once you’ve done it a dozen or so times.
Once a coach has really mastered an event, often they’ll stay in it to rack up a ton of hardware and feel good about themselves through their students. If we expanded and aggressively recruited and had 20 extempers on our squad, we’d almost certainly have at least a few students who could be nationally competitive every year. We could have an empire. But I’m not that kind of person. Trophies are cheap in more ways than one; they’re not worth the effort. To some degree in speech, most of the education is realized in making a bad freshman into a good sophomore. After that level, the rest is just ever more precious refinement; the educational differences between a national champion and a kid who breaks their senior year aren’t that great. At that level, it’s more of a talent difference.
I coached and did this to learn myself, create, and grow. And I’d stopped doing that.
So I was ready to stop coaching speech. I wrote a note over the summer, strangely so far not replied to, asking for a quiet end. It was too quiet — some of my old students don’t seem to know the score. I left behind a solid group of extempers and a dizzying array of senior PF debaters. And now at last I’ve come public. I’m an ex speech coach.
I didn’t want this to be a Big Shocking Announcement with a bunch of tearful goodbyes, because I haven’t ever viewed myself as institutional. Every year I asked the question “do I want to do this again?” and had to make the choice to continue, rather than it being automatic. I’ve never had great loyalty to any particular school or program, not even my own alma mater — because I feel that excessive school loyalty is corrosive to education. If coaching and help from me could make a difference to a kid who happened to be born in another school district, it’s not in my nature to withhold them. Ultimately being part of an institution isn’t what I want out of forensics, and being a part of an institution is the only thing that would be left for me in speech. So I bade it goodbye.
But this is not, as it happens, a complete goodbye.