My family had moved (again) and I was the new girl in a new school in a new town. I was twelve years old, skinny, with braids tied with gingham ribbons, entering the seventh grade in the Junior High School. And I was shy! Everyone was a stranger. I now had to change rooms and have several teachers. Would I ever be able to find my way around the building, make friends? I felt overwhelmed and lost.
And then my Social Studies teacher, Miss Jones, came to my rescue. One afternoon, in my second week at school, she took me by the hand and marched me down the hall to a room with a hand-labeled sign: “Speech.”
“Put her to work,” she said, and left.
Saved my life.
I was assigned a reading in dramatic declamation, a scene from the play “Dark Victory.” That first year I made it to the County finales. My mother had bought a remnant of fabric and made me a new dress with a bolero. I remember standing on a stage that felt as if it were 50 feet above the audience. Mother had bought new gingham ribbons for my braids. (The ribbon was about 4 inches wide, brightly colored.) One of the braids had slipped to the front of my body, and I was suddenly concerned about finding a way to toss it back. I never did, and the ribbon hung like a 50-pound weight against my chest. I still managed to get a third place for my efforts.
By the time I was in the ninth grade, I had added oratory and was tapped for debate. Quite an honor, really, as I was the only girl chosen. The debate team met in the high school, which housed grades 10-12. Every afternoon, I made the mile-long hike up to the high school for practice. I was on the B team and I loved it. Being so young and a girl, I was treated a bit like a little sister, coddled and protected. Of course, the boys on the team got to tease me, but no one else could.
Chippewa Falls was a small town of about 13,000, and we were placed in the league with much larger towns. As a result, we were a washout in sports except for one glorious year when we won the state championship in basketball. The entire town turned out to celebrate—we even had a parade. However, we had a speech coach who was a terror. Grace Walsh. She trained/coached us relentlessly, always seeing our strengths and abilities. She was a marvelous mixture of love and strength. And her methods worked. We all had nicknames: Grace was “Bonnie da Boss,” Johnny Dahl was “Big John.” Jim McClellan, “Bad Mac,” and I was “Rudy da Rat.”
In my junior year, we were at the State finals and my team had just been given our assignment. We were to debate a team from a bigger college town. As we entered the room, I overheard one of our opponents speak. He sounded terrified. “Oh my God! It’s Chippewa Falls.” We won and were state champions.
I was then doing extemporaneous oratory. Each year, four to six national issues were chosen. I spent the months before the contests began, frantically studying the subjects, making notes on my 3x5 cards, practicing. I made it through County and went on to State. Another new dress, but sans the braids. There were finally six finalists, and I the only girl. I was to follow a boy named Jerry. I knew him. He was from our bitter rival, Eau Claire, a city of about 60,000. Jerry was a fiery orator, a dynamic speaker who pounded hard and had won first place the year before. I knew his bedroom was probably filled with the numerous medals and trophies he’d won over the years. I was terrified.
I drew a card with the subject I was to talk about and was given twenty minutes to prepare. By this time, my 3x5s were badly dog-eared, but I got them out and nervously prepared, seriously wishing that I hadn’t played so much, regretting I hadn’t worked harder to prepare. There was a tap at the door. “You’re on.”
I dropped my cards and followed the man into the room. Someone had lowered the shades against the afternoon sun and the light in the room was dim. The desks and chairs had been pushed to the rear of the room to create a stage-like space. I looked about to orient myself and saw about ten men seated in the center of the room, surrounding my dear coach Grace Walsh. She smiled at me and nodded. A man spoke, “You’ll have twenty minutes. I’ll warn you at ten and five. At one minute, I’ll ring a bell and you may finish your sentence. You may begin.”
I have no recollection of what I said. I do recall one vivid moment when it felt as if I held the room in the palm of my hand, a feeling of such power that it startled me.
At the end, the contestants were all called back into the room and the awards were handed out. There was a third place winner. And then the judge approached me. As he handed me the second-place silver medal, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You were really the best, but you are a girl.” Jerry was given first place.
I never told anyone what the judge said and never complained. It never occurred to me it could be otherwise. After all, I had been playing in an arena where historically men had always had the upper hand. But times change and one of the most exciting issues has been that of women. We’ve come a long way and there’s still way to go.
War (WWII) was declared the following year and Jerry joined the Merchant Marine. His ship, an oil tanker, went down in the North Sea. All hands lost. I thought of his parents sitting in his bedroom in their grief. Now all they had were his medals and awards. Small comfort.