“You are your own best thing.”
This was the message that defined the twenty-five years of The Oprah Show, which aired its final broadcast Wednesday night. But these words — while important — are not unique or revolutionary. So what was it about Oprah saying them that spurred a multi-million dollar media phenomenon that includes a talk show, a magazine, and now a television network?
This weekend, I will join thousands of high school students in Washington, D.C. for the national speech and debate tournament. Oprah attended this same national tournament almost forty years ago — an experience she claims made the difference between a quiet, personal idea and a resounding message that was broadcast around the world for 25 years.
A high school activity with the power to change lives
Oprah is one of our generation’s great communicators. People open up to her because they feel like she empathizes with them. And, while I’m sure Oprah does feel for her interviewees, this feeling only translates over the television because, through her voice and expressions, she knows how to channel it.
Oprah learned these skills when she joined her high school speech team. This experience led her to win two consecutive Tennessee state titles in the category of Dramatic Interpretation, followed by an oratory scholarship that paid for much of her college education.
An idea is only powerful if you can give voice to it. This is the goal of both the National Catholic Forensics League and the National Forensics League: to give high school students the skills they need to express themselves in a way that is both controlled and inspired.
At James Logan, 90 percent of speech and debaters go to college
In 2003, Oprah gave one of her Angel Board grants to Tommie Lindsey, the coach of the speech and debate team at James Logan High School in Union City, California.
James Logan is a struggling high school in an underprivileged area. Only 40 percent of its graduates go on to college. That number rises to 90 percent for members of the James Logan speech and debate team, with many going to top-tier schools like Harvard, Yale and Berkeley.
When I attended last year’s national tournament, I competed against a young man from James Logan. He won the final round, moving hundreds of audience members with his own life-changing experience: seeing his friend gunned down by a gang on the streets of Union City.
When you give a teenager the tools to voice his experiences in a way that makes people listen, you make him believe that what he says has value. You give him self-confidence at a critical moment — a moment that has the potential to define the rest of his life.
How can we spread the power of spoken word?
More school boards should establish speech and debate teams in their own districts. This is a call to all teachers, coaches and administrators: make your students see that they are their own “best thing.”
Photo credit: Caroline Kitchener