The Road to States: A Look Back

Penny HarrisThis weekend’s Opening Ceremony will feature speeches from three new OSDA Coaches’ Hall of Fame inductees (Dolores Muller, Alan Bates, and Jason Habig).  In preparation for these upcoming speeches, here is a look back at one of last year’s inductees, Penny Harris of Canton Central Catholic.

According to one famous comedian, “Life isn’t something you possess.  It’s something you take part in, and you witness.”  Thank you, Cleveland, for welcoming us to “The LAND.” The Land where we are all witnesses. Where Lebron James proved that a dream fueled by dedication, drive, and vision can be achieved.  How appropriate that The Land is hosting the OHSSL State Championship.

We may flex different muscles in speech and debate, but we share a few common denominators: similarities such as passion, competitiveness, and heart.  We are all witnesses to the power and effectiveness of speech and debate.  I am so honored to be standing here to join this group of individuals for whom I have the utmost respect, but no one stands alone in The Land.  Many people stand with me—including all of you.

We are all witnesses.  What I want to share with you now is my witness: how I got here; what I’ve witnessed; and why I love The Land.

I’m just a girl from Canton.

Canton is where I started and where I still am today.  Thirty years ago I was a sophomore at Canton McKinley.  I joined the Speech and Debate team and competed in Prose/Poetry that year.  (I was awful!)  It’s important to know that I blame Manuel Halkias.  He gave me a piece on being…a coal miner’s daughter.  (No, it wasn’t a good theme in 1987 either.  Believe me, it was something to witness.)  I had a very dramatic ending that went something like this: “Blue Ridge mountain refugees fighting to get home.”  I actually got a “1” with that at Wooster!  (Witness: there were squirrel judges then, too.)

The next year my best friend joined the team, and we did Duet Acting, and for the next two years we made history.  Some of that history was winning.  (I like to win.)  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m slightly competitive.  Okay, I’m ridiculously competitive.  When my students complain that something isn’t fun, I always say, “You know what’s fun?  Winning is fun!”  Now, Heather and I were pretty good.  We qualified to State, and placed often at local tournaments; we were something to witness.  Any of you who are in partner categories knows that sometimes it is difficult to work with a partner; there are problems, disagreements, cat fights.  My teammates witnessed a fight outside the bus one Saturday morning between my partner and I that is still talked about in the halls of McKinley.

(I won’t go into the details.  All you need to know is that I was right and she was wrong.)

When my coach yelled for me to get on the bus, I turned to look at him and saw 40 faces smashed against the glass.  There is always a witness.

“Penny Harris sets a tone in every tab room that she works that is both welcoming and professional at once!  The OSDA is blessed to have coaches such as Penny, who lead by example.”
— Kathy Patron, Perry

My memories of speech and debate are rooted to my first coaches, Alan Rubenstein and Manuel Halkias.  They took a personal interest in me and changed the trajectory of my life.   The things I have witnessed both as a student and as a coach influence what I do with 24 of my weekends every year, what I do every day from 3 till 5 PM (or 6 or 7…), as well as on Sunday afternoons.  Speech and Debate has given me some of my most cherished memories.  I wish you could have witnessed:

  • Jeremy Hamilton partake in a tab room dance party;
  • Kathy Patron fold a T-shirt like a machine;
  • Kristie Cramer and I fighting at our tournament over letting our kids eat hot dogs;
  • The sketchy motel where I told the kids to stay inside and keep the door locked;
  • When the kids dared me, in a restaurant, to pretend my fuzzy purse was a puppy;
  • When we accidentally blew through the “E-Z Pass” turnpike lane without an easy pass (there’s a fine for that, by the way); and
  • Almost teaching Drake Spina how to wash out a bowl and put it in the dishwasher.

Speech and Debate will undoubtedly provide you with great memories, as well.  It will establish friendships that last a lifetime:

  • Manuel, you were the first.  Thank you for your guidance, undying support, continued friendship, and so many memories;
  • Zach and Daniel, thank you for your dedication, your drive—but most importantly—your friendship.  You’ve always thought you were my favorites, and you are, although my students are all my favorites.  You do, however, hold a very special place in my heart;
  • Kathy Patron and John Weaver—such class acts: your friendship and respect mean the world to me;
  • Missy Stertzbach, I respect you immensely as someone who is great coach, district chair, and Board member.  Your dedication to every student, and the things you do to help them and your fellow coaches, is astounding; but even more wonderful to me is your friendship.  Thank you for EVERYTHING;
  • And to my speech family in Akron and Canton; my Friends in Youngstown, which is like my second district; and to all of my other speech friends across the state that I so enjoy seeing, even though it isn’t as often as I’d like; and to my friends whom I serve with on the Board—thank you for your friendship.

You have all witnessed the effects of speech and debate in your own lives.  You have witnessed coaches who:

  • Ride on school busses to take you to tournaments—at ridiculous hours;
  • Read entire novels to make you a 10-minute cutting…that you will not like (they will then make you another one);
  • Make sure your hotel has a pool;
  • Run at midnight in a strange city to get you “Pepto,” pantyhose, legal pads, or whatever else you need;
  • Cry with you when you break to Finals; and
  • Cry for you when you don’t.

Your teammates have been witnesses, also.  They have watched you practice, made suggestions, and cheered you on.

“Penny Harris is the epitome of the caring coach. The relationships she builds with each of her students last a lifetime and provide those young people a solid foundation for their futures. I am proud of Penny as a former student of mine and a current coaching colleague. Her expertise, sensitivity, and enthusiasm make her one of Ohio’s best.”
—Manny Halkias, Canton McKinley

Let’s not forget our families.  When you first began this endeavor, your parents probably said something like “You want to do what? …on Saturday? …at what time?”  However, they jumped right in and bought you suits, picked you up at midnight, were roped into judging—and most importantly—witnessed you grow.

My family is witness.  My brother, Kirk, is here today.  He flew in last night from Tennessee to be here with me.  He knows that when speech season comes, I will disappear and be hard to reach, but he always cheers me on and is one of our biggest fans.  My daughter, Kennedy, has been a Witness since birth.  She was at her first Central Speech practice when she was two weeks old, and her first tournament—five weeks later.  She has slept in many tab rooms and cafeterias across the state and country.  (I’m fairly certain that she learned her first bad words from Nick Bollas.)  She has been a “speechie” since birth and I appreciate her support.

My first supporter, however, was my Mom.  She was my biggest fan.  She cheered for my kids, made them cookies, and took care of Kennedy when I was at tournaments.  She was at GlenOak High School when I qualified my first Duo team to Nationals in 2003.  She was so excited, and I am so thankful that I was able to share that with her, especially as she passed away two months later.

My Mom got to witness the wonder of my students succeeding, but what I will tell you is that my Mother was a witness to me.  She taught me that you have to push yourself, you have to want it, and that—if you give it your all—you can walk away with no regrets, win or lose.  I’m sure she is witnessing this right now.

To my administration, who is here: Father Robert Kaylor, who has always been behind us 100 percent; our Director of Guidance, Jeff Lindesmith, whose son was one of my presenters—thank you for traveling to The Land and sharing in this special day.  To my speech parents who have allowed me to be part of your children’s lives—thank you.  To my alumni, thank you for giving back and investing in the future.  To my team, thank you for your hard work and dedication.  I expect a great deal from you because I know what you can achieve.

“Watching Penny coach is to watch someone who cares about her students as competitors, as well as young people.  She encourages her students to set personal goals and to figure out what they need to do to achieve them.  Through collaboration with her students she helps them achieve things they did not know were possible.”
— Missy Stertzbach, North Canton Hoover

I stand here today as a witness of the lasting effects of speech and debate.  Please stand in witness if you are:

  • A parent who has seen their child benefit from speech and debate;
  • Alumni who still use speech and debate skills;
  • A coach whose greatest success comes from kids who personally grow even if they never win a single round;
  • An administrator who believes in the importance of speech and debate;
  • A student who has dreamed, believed, and is ready to achieve.

We are all Witnesses.