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Schools: For WHS team, every word matters

By Charles Swenson
For the Observer

The presidential debate last week that drew tens of millions of viewers left one small audience cold. It might be entertaining, but it isn’t debate, not to members of the Waccamaw High speech and debate team.

“It’s a different style,” said Samantha Jaouiche, who competes in debate. “It isn’t the same structure.”

If the candidates were graded on preparation and presentation, they wouldn’t get far, said Ree Lawson, the English teacher who coaches the Waccamaw Windtalkers. Plus, she deducts “snippy points” when debaters are rude or talk out of turn.

Sam Averette still finds the presidential debates instructive. “I analyze their speaking techniques,” he said. “It helps me.”

Analysis and preparation are what helped the team to a third place overall finish in the state competition in March. The Warriors were first among Class AA schools. They started a new season of speech and debate last month with a first place finish in a regional event.

The competition starts before they open their mouths. Jules Steffen, a freshman, found that out in a critique from team members on a reading she is preparing for the next event. “Four years ago,” the reading from “The False Prince” by Jennifer Nielsen begins. But first, Averette shows her how to open the black three-ring folder that is a required component. A fluid movement turns the folder and opens the cover while Steffen makes eye contact with the audience.

“Four years ago,” she begins.

Not so fast. “You should be all out on the first line,” Jake Homan said.

“Hit that first line hard,” Lawson said. “Three little words, but it makes all the difference.”

And volume. That shouldn’t even be an issue. “You’ve got to grab attention and establish that you are a polished performer,” Lawson said.

“Four years ago,” Steffen continues. The fantasy novel is hard to sell with its strange kingdoms and rulers. “As listeners, we fill in things all the time,” Lawson said. That doesn’t work with this tale.

“Place emphasis on nouns and verbs,” Averette told Steffen. “Every single word matters.”

In 20 minutes, Steffen doesn’t get past the introduction of her 5 minute reading. “It’s getting better and better,” Lawson told her. The bigger lesson for the team is that they can’t just read through a piece the night before a competition.

The exception is impromptu speaking. Lawson gave Homan three pieces of paper. He picked one, sat at his desk for a minute and then began a three minute talk about Pop-Tarts. “Why they are important in today’s society,” would be the topic, Homan said. He established an outline and talked his way through it point by point, changing position as he moved along a journey from kitchen cabinet to toaster.

“Pop-Tarts are there when we need them,” Homan said as time expired.

“You are always engaging, always charismatic,” Lawson said. For competition, it lacked just one thing. “Sources?” Lawson asked.

“The Wall Street Journal,” Averette suggested.

Most of the competitions for the Windtalkers are held in the Upstate. They have aspirations that will take them farther afield.

Averette and Sara Ness competed at the Yale Speech and Debate Tournament last month. Averette reached the quarterfinals in Humorous Interpretation. It is one of two national events for team members this year. “We’re trying to move up a level,” Lawson said.

“It was a true taste of the professionals,” said Ness. The only way for Waccamaw to improve is to compete with top teams, but the cost of national events is high, she added.

“It’s becoming a rich kids’ sport,” Lawson said. It costs team members about $100 out of pocket to go to regional competitions.

The team finished first among 26 teams from three states in a competition at Riverside High in Greer last month. The Warriors swept the Original Oration category with Averette taking first, Alex Jaouiche second and Derek Rollins third. That put them on the way to qualifying for national competition.

Averette was also fifth in Humorous Interpretation and Program Oral Interpretation. Homan was fifth in Original Oration and Impromptu Speaking.

Ness was second in Program Oral Interpretation. Jaouiche was third in Impromptu Speaking. Damion Patterson was fourth in Declaration.

Molly O’Donovan was the top novice in Humorous Interpretation. Evan Carter was second in Novice Reading. Samantha Jaouiche was fifth in Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate.

The Windtalkers head to Bob Jones University in Greenville for their next competition. They will also compete in Columbia and Mauldin before going to another national event at George Mason University in Virginia in December. Competitions continue through the national tournament in May. Averette and Stephen Russell went to the nationals this year.

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