By Joseph Robertia
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked that so many people have a fear of public speaking that, if given the choice, “More people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
For some, this fear likely started in childhood, standing in front of peers while awkwardly stammering through a report of some kind. This was not the scene Saturday though, during the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Forensics Competition, held at Tustumena Elementary School.
Not to be confused with crime-scene sleuthing, forensics in this case refers to speaking to a group in a structured, deliberate manner that is intended to entertain, inform or influence the listening audience. Its goal is the very opposite of teaching kids to be scared of public speaking.
The borough finals meet was held over the weekend with 12 borough elementary schools and 161 students competing.
Having already won the school-level forensics competitions, Saturday’s gathering represented the cream of the crop. To advance to the boroughwide level, these young orators had already displayed the ability to not just transmit information, but emotionally move the audience with their presentation.
Tustumena Elementary Principal Doug Hayman, who had a strong contingent of kids competing in the event, said that a comprehensive rubric is used to judge the participants. It reviews, for instance, their selection, eye contact, poise, pace, conclusion, articulation, volume, facial expressions and body involvement.
“As the kids get older and more experienced, the presentations seem more dramatic,” Hayman said, adding that in Tustumena’s own school-level competition, some of the sixth-graders received high scores.
Derek Lewis, from Redoubt Elementary, was one of those who received a near-perfect score, placing first in the humorous poetry, single, grade six division Saturday for his animated rendition of “A Boy Named Sue,” written by Shel Silverstein and made famous by country music legend Johnny Cash.
“I wanted something no one had ever performed,” Lewis said.
Coming from a large family of five brothers and two sisters, of which four siblings have been involved in forensics, Lewis credited his family for influencing his selection to a degree.
“My dad listens to a lot of Johnny Cash, and one of my brothers considered doing it a few years ago. He didn’t, though, and it sounded good to me, so I went for it,” he said.
In addition to dramatic speaking abilities, and donning a straw cowboy hat and bandana around his neck, Lewis also gesticulated and contorted his facial expressions to match the lyrics, such as thrusting up a foot and baring his teeth to the line, “He kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile.”
As to how he got so comfortable speaking in front of a large group, Lewis again credited his kin.
“Having such a big family, it’s just not new to me,” he said. “Some kids are scared, but I always look forward to it. It doesn’t bother me a bit. If I could I would continue doing it.”
While Lewis is just about to complete his forensics career, Catherine Kaminski of Kalifornsky Beach Elementary is just starting to peak at hers. She placed second in the interpretive reading, single, grade four division for her animated reading from “The Stinky Cheeseman,” by Jon Scieszka.
“I thought it was funny, so maybe other people would, too,” she said.
She said she practiced at length with many peers, but her favorite part of getting ready was the reading of the book itself.
“I love to read,” she said. “It’s like a vacation for your mind.”
Improved reading is just one perk of having children involved in forensics, according to Curtis and Cheryl Brown, who watched their daughter, Carsen, perform and place third in the prose, multiple grade division, along with her friends from Soldotna Elementary, Sally Hoagland and Mariah Parnell.
“Public speaking is a lifelong skill, so it’s good for them to develop it now, and they’re getting used to it through this, and being involved in student council and other activities,” Cheryl said. “In addition to improving their public speaking, doing a skit — having to memorize lines and use facial expressions — it’s a good segue into drama as they get older.”
Curtis said that working with others during forensics is also an important lifeskill and a key to success as a budding adult.
“This involves teamwork and interacting with others. It just makes them more social all around,” he said.