Sunday, December 13, 2009


I have to take a moment to share a personal triumph- one that is unrelated to writing or to publishing but is dear to my heart.
Usually teaching in an urban middle school is as unlike the inspirational movies as water is unlike oil. I weep sometimes when I see the hopeless cycle of poverty at work in the lives of my students each day. My triumphs are usually invisible. I am forced to walk by faith and not by sight.
However, today I saw something wonderful. Today was the Winter Middle School Speech Meet. Schools from across the state came and watched as their students showcased their rhetorical and dramatic skills. I entered 5 students from my school. Most of the schools are affluent and their teams are 25-75 students strong. They practice everyday in and out of school. My students come before and after school but we are by no means a well-oiled powerhouse. Still, the league has welcomed us with open arms and my principal and co-workers are beyond supportive. The parents pull together to get the kids to the meets since we cannot afford transportation.
My students love the experience of competing. They love to see the beautiful schools we get to compete at. They love that they get to eat doughnuts for breakfast. They love meeting new friends and discovering that they are not as different as they had imagined. They love to speak their minds and be really heard.
One student, who I will call Mona, is exceptionally gifted. Her event is impromptu, which means she has 7 minutes to write and perform a speech on a subject she pulls randomly from an envelope. Her ability to do this amazes me,. Today alone she performed 3 times which means that in a span of several hours she composed and delivered 3 different speeches.
There is little need to point out that the day was long and exhausting. By the end of it judges, coaches and competitors all seemed sapped of energy. By the awards ceremony at 4pm I was just happy that my students had made it there, stood up and delivered their speeches, regardless of their scores. After all for a pre-teen to dedicate hours of free time and subject themselves to hard work and possible humiliation is no small victory.
At the end of the day we sat in the auditorium experiencing the emotional stress of the awards ceremony. I felt an ache bruising my heart as I watched the disappointment on my students’ faces. I had not really prepared them well. I had not told them that this is not elementary school, not everyone gets a ribbon, not everybody wins. Still, it mended my heart a little to see their excitement endure despite their lack of visible reward.
And then, the finalists for impromptu were called up. I heard Mona’s name. That sound illuminated the faces of each and every one of my students and my heart began to pound in my chest. I watched her up their as honorable mention was announced, 6th place, 5th place and tears began to well in my eyes. The winners of 4th place and 3rd place were also announced and dismissed. On the stage stood only two students: Mona and a boy from a rival school. (A school, I might add, that is known for its prowess in impromptu.) I was so proud my heart began to ache again, this time with joy.
And then they announced the winner, and it was her! It was Mona, and for that moment I felt my eyes, heart, soul and mind fill with hope and gratitude. I was cheering with my whole being. I was so proud. And her mom was there, she had made it just in time, and the other students celebrated like we had all won... because in a way we had.
I suppose in the end this does have something to do with writing for it is some of the richest food for thought I have tasted. I can ask for no better holiday tale than one so full of triumph, hope, courage and love. It was an undeserved gift and I wanted to share it.


  1. That is absolutely a triumph! As their teacher, you have every reason in the world to be proud. They sound like a wonderful group of kids as not all kids would eagerly celebrate a single winner on their team like your students did.

  2. Undeserved??? By you? Not by a long shot, I would say.

    Congratulations to Mona for a job truly well done, and may the momentum of this success carry her far. And congratulations and a big hug for you, who helped Mona and all the others strive to be their best. This was a really wonderful story, and it is quite appropriate for you to bask in the warmth of reflected glory. Merry Christmas!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. (Former comment was deleted and reposted for clarification reasons.)

    That's great, absolutely fabulous. What really moved me was Mona's mother showing up just in time to see her win. And also: wow to Mona! I don't know how the subjects were selected or what they were about, but give a speech about a subject (any subject at all) without preparation? That girl is gifted.

    And please keep sharing your stories of personal triumph because they can be inspiring, helpful or simply fun to read. The more positivity in this world, the better life (of the collective) gets!

    P.S. Got to agree with Deborah; I don't know you, but I believe there are no such things as undeserved gifts.

  5. Thank you all for your encouraging and engaging comments. I will pass them along to Mona. I look forward to posting further about speech and debate triumphs and trials.

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience. It did feel like a movie experience where you are sitting there with bated breathe cheering for Mona. I could feel your pride and excitment in your writing and it felt good to share that feeling with you.