Alice V., one my high school teachers, passed away recently. Alice was not in my Pantheon of teachers who provided the Aha! moments or pushed me to deeper thinking, whether in science or humanities. But on remembering Alice, maybe my Pantheon is missing some members.
I knew Alice, successively, in three different roles - high school guidance counselor, speech team coach, and mother of my high school girlfriend.
Guidance counselors were to be held at arm's length. After all, they were part of the high school power apparatus, their offices just across the main entrance from the principal and vice-principal's office. Inspired by other teachers, I had read my Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Communist Manifesto; so in addition to being low-level enforcers of high school order, guidance counselors were preparing us for our future lives of quiet desperation, hopefully as members of the petit bourgeoisie.
In my freshman year a teacher suggested I try out for the speech team. A couple of older students who were my intellectual idols were on the team, so I started showing up every Thursday night for team practice. Alice was the head (and often only) coach. Teams competed in multiple events , such as humorous or dramatic readings, impromptu or extemporaneous speaking, and debate. Speech meets happened at the other schools in our athletic league, and also large multi-day tournaments sponsored by college debate teams (who did the judging and used the registration fees to pay for own team expenses.) So as a side-effect, while a high-school freshman I spent time around college environments.
Via a process of benign neglect or just allowing me to get my feet wet, I started competing in the event called humorous interpretation. This was not a good match. As many actors have noted, comedy is much tougher than drama. But after a couple of months, Alice suggested that I pair with another student to compete in "Oxford debate" - pairs against pairs on a fixed subject for the whole school year, randomly assigned to the affirmative or negative side in each round. We were OK - win some, lose some.
Alice also had me compete in the event called "extemporaneous speaking" - you are given one or more subjects in current events and have 45 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech. Also a better match than humorous interp, but it meant I had to read U.S. New and World Report cover to cover each week. I retain the habit, except that now it's The Economist.
At the end of the year, team members with more seniority filled slots in my events at district competition, so Alice placed me in an event in which I never competed: impromptu speaking. You receive a list of topics, and immediately speak on one of them for five minutes. The trick is to choose one topic nearly immediately, but pretend to stare at the list for maybe ten seconds while composing an outline for the speech. Surprisingly, I took second place and gained a berth to State; and I also gained a new event.
The summer after my sophomore year, Alice encouraged me to go to a two-week speech summer school at a nearby university, funded by a school-district scholarship. I was immersed in debate training and long conversations with other students. When I came back in the fall, I needed a new debate partner - the previous one having graduated from high school. After a couple of other tries, Alice suggested her daughter Jan. We dutifully got together in evenings at my house to work on opening statements, review lines of argument, etc. But the debating team of Tom and Jan didn't go in exactly the direction that Alice has probably envisioned for it. Jan and I were in the same grade and had hung out together with other students at school and speech meets. But during the evenings of sitting together hashing over approaches to debate, I found I really liked her. We competed rather unsuccessfully in a couple of debates, but we moved from debate partners to girlfriend-boyfriend. And to me, Alice transitioned to "mother-of-the-girlfriend." Yes, she was still speech coach, but she (and my parents) became the traditional impediments to the course of true love - limits on telephone time, curfews, and use of the family car.
For the rest of the year, I transitioned to the single opponent event called Lincoln-Douglas debate - one on one with cross-examination. I did well, making it to quarter-finals at a large college-sponsored event and later qualifying to go to State from my school league. And the high school romance lasted until partway through our first year of college.
So what about that Pantheon? Alice was not a fount of rhetorical knowledge or technique. I did not get any Aha moments from her. Instead, she was there to facilitate debate practice every Thursday night, and drove a carload of speech students to meets most Fridays, and spent time at big multi-day tourneys herding high school students to and from the college campuses. She nudged me into events where I excelled. Maybe my view of Alice was overshadowed by the lens of "mother of the girlfriend," but it may also be that we construct our Pantheons too much from peak experiences. I am reminded of Paul in 1 Corinthians - there are many different gifts, all important. Alice's gifts were not of the flashy sort. She had the gift of being there, for years on end, organizing and facilitating our efforts. High school speaking competition and the early exposure to a larger intellectual world gave me better thinking, writing, and presentation skills throughout the rest of my life.
Thank you, Alice.