I stood on stage with seven other apologetics finalists at Stoa’s 2015 national invitational speech and debate tournament. One after another, the other competitors’ names were called until I was the only one remaining. Then, Stoa’s president, Dr. Van Schalin called out, “The apologetics national champion, from Lynnwood Apologetics: Mr. Benjamin Powell!” In that moment, all I could think of was the accomplishment, but later, as I talked with my speech club director, I started to look back on the journey that had led me to the place where I was now. When I started speaking three years ago, I was nowhere near the confident speaker I am now – I was terrified of public speaking. It took me over a year to realize that though my fear of public speaking was powerful, it was not unconquerable.
I was always shy, terrified of performing in any way for any audience. Thus, when I heard of Apologetics Speech, I was not thrilled. After returning from the introductory meeting of the Lynnwood Apologetics Speech Club in 2010, I begged my parents not to force me to speak until they finally agreed to let me attend the club as an observer for our first year. Even as an observer, I was so shy that by the end of that first year I hadn’t made any friends. It wasn’t until the start of our second year that an older boy named Matthew determined to become my friend and encouraged me to speak. I’m still astonished at his persistence. His friendship would have a major impact on the day of my first speech.
That day was one of terror. In spite of all my pleading, my parents refused to change their minds. That night, as I snuck out the door, my mother called, “Benjamin, you forgot your cards.” Feigning surprise, I returned, grabbed my notes, and plodded to the car. I prayed for an accident or breakdown – anything to keep us from getting to club. Instead, we arrived early. The meeting began with an hour of lectures. Usually, I enjoyed these, but that night I didn’t hear a word. My eyes constantly wandered to the clock, my fear growing to panic. When the club director asked all student speakers to stand so that he could divide us into groups, I cowered in my seat, designated myself a non-speaking student. I knew my parents were unhappy, but I couldn’t force myself to stand.
As other students hurried to their rooms, I slipped away, ashamed to face my parents. But as I headed downstairs to watch speeches, Matthew saw me. “Hey Ben! Do you have a speech ready for tonight?” he asked. “Well…Sort of,” I responded, offering, “I wrote a card.” “Awesome!” he pursued. “You should come and speak in my room.” Though still ashamed of my earlier fear, I was not so ashamed that my fear had disappeared. When Matthew invited me to speak, my terror returned. But he was already heading down the hall. I followed. In the room, I sat tensely through three other speakers. But after the third speaker the proctor, assuming that everyone prepared to speak had already spoken, stood to leave. My momentary relief disappeared as Matthew called, “Wait! Ben has a speech to give!” Before I could object, the proctor sat down and exclaimed, “Alright, get on up there and let’s hear it.”
That first speech was miserable. I stood rigid, my left hand tight against my side while my right hand clenched my notes. With every eye in the room on me, I panicked. Beginning in a voice that everyone in our small room had to strain to hear, I raced through my notes, presenting what at home had been a ten-minute speech in four minutes. It seemed to take hours, but at last, having bumbled through my speech, I concluded and sat down, embarrassed and determined never to give another speech. I didn’t want to hear feedback – I needed no reminder of how poorly I had spoken. Though I knew no one would be harsh, I didn’t want to hear their attempts to compliment a speech that could not have been worse. But instead of false praise, I found encouragement, understanding, and advice from my listeners. Afterwards, Matthew stayed to talk with me. “Don’t feel embarrassed,” he said. “Each of us knows that your speech was way harder than any of ours. We all had to give our own first speeches. Well, awesome job, Ben.”
At the time, that first speech didn’t seem like an accomplishment. It felt more like a failure. But today, as I compete with top speakers in the nation, I understand what Matthew meant. Although I’ve competed at national qualifiers and ranked high in the nation, I realize that the most important speech I have ever given was that first speech.
It's been a while since I had time to write anything. I just rushed this off, so it's a bit messy. Any stylistic advice would be welcome.