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Guest Column: Recounting Auburn’s winning speech season

By Aryan Arora

Auburn High School is a highly charged environment during the school day, but it truly comes to life at 3:30 p.m. After the vast majority of students have left the building, a select few stick around to get extra help from teachers, participate in clubs, and train for athletics.

A few years ago, amidst all the exciting things that were going on at Auburn after school, then-junior David Daye, coach Julie Clark, and I met to discuss the start of our first full season as a speech team. The team was small with only two people, but the dreams were big.

Sitting in her classroom, coach Clark listened intently as we discussed our dreams for the season. While we knew little about how speech tournaments worked (we would soon learn), we knew one thing: even with a team a tenth of the size of every other team in the state, the odds were in our favor. We had our voices — all we truly needed.

It is hard to believe now looking back at that meeting that it was the inaugural step of a long journey that would culminate with two state finals performances. In the three years David and I competed, we finished in the top three 27 times.

We earned 15 first-place awards, nine second-place awards, and three third-place awards. We didn’t know it at the time, but David would go on to be the first RPS 205 state speech finalist in 20 years, and I would go on to become the first RPS 205 state speech champion in 57 years. Both of us are the first Auburn Knights to do so in history.

We are often led to believe that history is made through actions of grandeur, but the truth is that history is the culmination of small actions of courage and faith. The courage that is shown when a team of two competitors believes that they can contend for state titles. The faith that coach Clark held when she devoted her Saturdays to taking Auburn’s smallest team to little-known towns in Illinois so we could compete. The courage and faith shown from our friends, family, and community when they believed in us. We couldn’t have done it without all of you.

The Winning Season
After watching David finish fourth at the state tournament last year, the bar was set high. On one hand I entered my senior season poised to win tournaments just as I had spent the last few seasons preparing to do. On the other hand, the odds of finishing in the top four in a field of roughly 250 competitors appeared daunting.

Heading into the season, I was dealt some upsetting news: after pulling off a feat that most speech coaches in the state can only dream of (coaching a state finalist), coach Clark announced her retirement from speech to devote her Saturdays to her family. That left the Auburn Speech team (me) without a coach.

With my senior year of speech at risk, coach Douglas McArthur, the coach of Jefferson High School’s speech team, offered to allow me to join his team and form a co-op between Jefferson and Auburn. The first hurdle of the season had passed: I had a team to compete for. Little did I know, this would be the first hurdle of many.

After a successful regular season, I was ready to enter the post season (regionals, sectionals, state). The excitement of one last chance of leaving my mark on IHSA speech filled me, but the biggest challenge of my speech season was still to come. The night before regionals, I found myself with the dreaded stomach flu. At 4 in the morning, my parents began to question how a boy who did not have enough energy to walk across the room could possibly deliver a six-minute speech that was supposed to be powerful and energetic.

With the fate of my speech career in the balance, I faced a decision: end my season abruptly and give up on the team that had fought to give me a second chance, or to refuse to give up on the activity that had taught me perseverance. That day I earned my second first-place finish at regionals and earned my third trip to sectionals in three years. The season was still alive.

As I stood on stage two weeks later, having just been named the Illinois state champion in impromptu speaking, I reflected on the two moments this season when my speech career could have ended prematurely. Had the Jefferson team not given me a chance to have a senior season, and had my parents not encouraged me to continue fighting for a state championship, I would have never had the opportunity to end my high school speech career in the most proud way possible: as a state champion.

Too often as high schoolers we write off our adversities as a sad ending to a bitter story. I have learned that the setbacks we face are simply the refilling of ink in our pens. They allow us to scribble out the current story and rewrite our own narrative for the future.

The Team
In my time as a speech competitor I have come across dozens of competitors who share my grit and love for public speaking. Two stand out as the most remarkable speakers I have had the privilege of learning from: David Daye (Auburn ’19) and Jada Cox (Jefferson ’20).

David was the trailblazer when it came to speech in RPS 205. Not only was he the first of the three of us to make it to state (and become the first state finalist from RPS 205 in 20 years and the first Auburn Knight in history!), but he more importantly strove for excellence in every competition — inspiring those of us behind him. He was a state finalist with a speech on the need for increased funding for the arts. David always referred to our Auburn speech team as “small but mighty,” and he was right. He is currently a member of the Bradley University speech team.

Jada Cox has been my teammate this year on Jefferson’s team. She also advanced to state this year, making her the first J-Hawk to do so in history. She competes in poetry — undoubtedly one of the most difficult speech events. She has not only created a name for herself as a gifted speaker, but through her success has been instrumental in creating a speech program at Jefferson (watch out for the Jefferson speech team in the coming years!).

I would encourage you to remember their names — chances are you will see them in the coming years arguing cases in the Supreme Court or will find yourself voting them in for public office. They are generational talents who use their voices to persuade and move audiences. There are many things I am proud to call myself: an Auburn Knight, a Rockfordian, a state champion, but there is nothing I take more pride in than being a teammate to two of the most outstanding speakers I have ever met.

As I look back on my speech career, I am filled with an immense amount of gratitude. Gratitude to coach Clark, and Mr. Paul Pickerl: The two coaches who gave our speech team a chance. To coach McArthur and coach Chloe Saint Arbor: the coaches who gave me a second chance at my senior year season and took two state qualifiers against the biggest names in IHSA speech and WON!

To coach McArthur: One thank you isn’t enough for the man who was the heart and soul of our team. You taught me valuable lessons beyond just how to speak with impact. To Mr. Kyle Owen who gave me my start.

To David and Jada: The teammates who continue to inspire and motivate me. To everyone at Auburn (especially Auburn Athletic Director Mr. Pemberton and Assistant Principal Mr. Gates) who invested in our speech team and in us. To my parents who believed in me even when I failed to believe myself. But most importantly to my community that has taught me the importance of my voice. Behind every individual events champion, there is an army of people who fought to make their achievements possible. I didn’t win a state championship. We did.

Aryan Arora is a senior at Auburn High School. He is the president of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council and the president of the Community Foundation’s In Youth We Trust Council.

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