By David Boyce
One afternoon in early December, Liberty High seniors Natalie Schaller and Mary Muir and Liberty North seniors Conner Paulson and Mac Newton took time out of their busy schedule to stop by the Administration Center for Liberty Public Schools.
Aaron Money, the director of fine arts at LPS, selected them to talk about the Liberty High and Liberty North speech and debate programs, both being ranked in the top 10 in a national poll that came out in late November.
Schaller, Muir, Paulson, and Newton were speaking on behalf of the 170 students who participate and compete in speech and debate at both schools. There is a nice camaraderie. Most times, the two schools are at the same competition throughout the school year.
Without sounding boastful, they are proud of the achievements of the two high schools.
“Being recognized at the national level is not an easy thing to do,” Paulson said. “It is such a big honor to be recognized. It shows we are dedicated, and we enjoy what we do, and we work hard for it.”
Those traits came across immediately when the four students spent nearly a half hour discussing the speech and debate programs and how it has helped their growth educationally and personally. For one, the four students were waiting in the lobby of the administration office more than ten minutes before the scheduled interview. Once in the conference room, each gave thoughtful answers to questions, while letting a bit of their personality shine through. They were prepared just as one needs to be for a debate or speech in front of peers and judges.
“For me,” Schaller said, “it’s the weeks leading up to the tournament that are more impactful. It requires an immense amount of dedication to be prepared to compete. Typically, when topics are released, you are looking at maybe two-to-three hours a night, every single night, researching, writing cases, writing arguments, and practicing delivery of those arguments.
“On the actual day of the tournament, not only do you have the culmination of all the work you have done, but you also have to make sure you are mentally prepared and utilize that work to be able to present it in a way that is compelling for a judge.”
Money listened to a few of Schaller’s responses and smiled. He said Schaller was in debate mode. Schaller gave a slight smile and acknowledged she was. But mostly, Schaller wanted to articulate just how empowering being in debate and speech is for students.
Muir can definitely attest to the positive experience it has been for her to be involved in speech. Money remembers how shy Muir was when she first started out.
There were times, Muir recalls, when she sat in Michael Turpin’s class and cried, because she felt she couldn’t give a speech.
“Turpin has always been the one who built me up and told me I can do this,” Muir said.
In those moments of doubt, Turpin told her she was capable of being great. She just had to go out and try.
“That is one of the biggest reasons I am as successful as I am,” Muir said. “My freshman year, I was going to drop speech and debate, because I was terrified of public speaking. Now, I am not afraid to speak out and express my opinion. I owe it all to Mr. Turpin and Mr. [Tim] Baldwin.”
Each of the four students gave credit to their speech and debate teachers who have helped in their development over the past three-to-four years.
For Newton, it is Sean Nicewaner, the debate coach at Liberty North. He said Nicewaner goes beyond just focusing on the students who do well in competition. He makes sure the students who aren’t doing as well don’t fall through the cracks. He builds them up.
“Whenever you fail, he treats you with tough love, like telling you to increase your preparation and giving you specific steps to follow to better yourself instead of offering, ‘you will get them next time and a pat on the back.’ He is focused on the reasons you failed and how to fix those, so you will do better in the future,” Newton said.
Paulson enjoys speech, because it provides him with an outlet to be funny and show his creativity. Kim Lenger has helped him improve in speech.
“She has the ability to put you in an event and make something great,” Paulson said. “She always knows what to say, even though it is not always what you want to hear. She is awesome at what she does.”
Schaller credits Baldwin for her growth as a debater.
“Mr. Baldwin has been the most incredible teacher I have ever encountered,” Schaller said. “He pushes students to work harder than they ever had to before. He doesn’t let them back down when they face a challenge. Even if a student happens to fail, he is there to encourage you and lift you back up.”
A year from now, Schaller, Muir, Paulson, and Newton will be in college, taking the next step towards their career goals. They have learned a skill that will help make the process easier; they know how to communicate.
“Public speaking is something I think is neglected a lot now,” Newton said. “But, like Natalie said, having someone to challenge the ideas you bring up as fact and then try to respond to what you bring to the table is great. It goes deeper than the surface of what you are talking about.”
Money is so passionate about speech and debate that he wishes every student at LPS participated to the point where they compete against other students in another school district.
“It is learning how to communicate with people with smart words,” Money said. “Being able to defend your beliefs, your opinions and morals, and being able to speak in front of people freely and comfortably. I think a lot of times that is what we are missing in today’s world, because there is a lot of impersonal social media.”
The words from Schaller, Muir, Paulson, and Newton reaffirms Money’s conviction on the importance of speech and debate.
“Debate has completely impacted my life, not only personally, because I now feel much more empowered than I did when I came to high school,” Schaller said. “It changed what I want to study. I want to study international relations and public policy and pursue a career in government when I am older. It made me more confident in pursuing lofty goals. It has completely changed my life for the better.”
Besides learning to communicate, all four students said they enjoy the competition with other students like them across the Kansas City metropolitan area.
“The people you see at tournaments participating in the same events as you, are basically just like you,” Paulson said. “Meeting so many people who I know would have my back, and I would have theirs, is nice. These are opportunities not many people get. I don’t know many activities that would give you this opportunity. Seeing them every week is awesome. It is a good break from your normal crowd.”
The competitions also allow them to learn from others.
“The debate rounds that are most difficult are when you are faced with the most intelligent opponent and are forced to grow the most,” Schaller said. “Not only do you become more articulate through the years and are able to express yourself, but you are eventually able to think in such a unique way that it is incredible the growth you will experience. You learn how to research efficiently. You learn how to synthesize really dense text in an efficient manner. You become a better student in all of your classes.”
Paulson knows what speech has meant to him in his years at Liberty North.
“I can walk into any of my classes and talk,” Paulson said. “There are kids who are terrified to speak in public. It is amazing how one activity can help you speak in front of people.”