The Road to States: Another Look Back

Updated-headshotBW.pdfThis 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, Holly Custer of Wooster High School.

Can you remember a time when your life changed?

Maybe it was a big life event—like a wedding, a birth, or a death.  Or maybe it was a smaller change, like starting a new job or making a new friend.  We all have moments in our lives that help shape and define who we are and whom we will become.  For me, one of the most definitive moments of change happened in the spring of my eighth-grade year.  That spring, I said “yes” to speech and debate, and that decision completely altered the trajectory of my life.

In the spring of eighth grade, we middle-schoolers were able to attend presentations from several extracurricular groups offered at our high school.  Of course, I went to the band presentation; I had been a member of the band for several years, and was excited to start marching at the football games.  I opted out of several other presentations and was planning to opt out of the speech and debate presentation.  There was NO WAY I was going to voluntarily put myself in front of other people to speak.  And certainly not early on Saturday mornings.  However, one of my good friends (who aspired to be an attorney) was set on going to this presentation, and she wanted me to go with her.

I tried to say no.  But, like any good attorney, she found a way to change my mind and convinced me to go along.  And so it was that I grudgingly went to this presentation for a group I knew I would never join.

How completely wrong I was.

The presentation began with some quick discussion and demonstration of debate.  One of them spoke so quickly, I had absolutely no idea what he said.  Another spoke of values and value criterion…and I was lost.  Then came the demonstration of what the coach called “the Interps.”  A young woman in a red dress came forward and performed a small piece of Shakespeare’s Scottish play…and I was hooked.  It was then that I knew I had been wrong.

Speech and Debate WAS for me.

I was mesmerized as she cried, “Out, out damned spot!” and I could see the invisible blood on her hands.  And at that moment, I said “no” to my preconceived convictions, and “yes” to speech and debate.

I said “yes” to speech and debate, and it changed everything.  When I went to the high school the next year, not only did I join the team, but I also enrolled in the speech and debate class that was offered.  Who was this girl living my life?  That simple, single “yes” changed the path I was on, and immediately altered my life course.  Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating, but allow me to explain.  That one “yes” took the shy, red-faced girl who hated class presentations, and forced her out of her comfort zone.  That one “yes” enabled her to find her voice and her passion.  That one “yes” opened up doors to careers and hobbies that would never have been an option before.  And that one “yes” led that girl to the man she’d marry.

Maybe some of you can relate to the shy, red-faced girl who hated class presentations.  Whenever a teacher would say that dreaded word, “presentation,” my heart would race, my face would flush, my ears would ring, and my lungs would feel like they were collapsing.  Breathing wasn’t an option.  Running wasn’t an option.  Misery was my sole destination.  But that one “yes” to speech and debate pushed me out of my comfort zone.  I had to present in class—in a speech and debate class, what else are you going to do?  I discovered that with practice and preparation, presentations COULD be tolerable.

Now that’s not to say that I don’t still get a racing heart or the familiar heat in my cheeks, but now—well, now it’s exhilarating rather than terrifying.  Not only did I expand my comfort zone, I also found my voice, my passion, and a new group of friends.

“Holly is a cat lady, and so am I.  My life experiences have taught me that people who like (love) cats are special.  They tend to be accepting and tolerant, and though they can be private people, they aren’t above some tomfoolery once and a while.  Anyone who has worked with Holly knows that she’s happy to share photos of her furry loved ones, or break into silly, sometimes creepy voices just to lighten the tab room mood.
It’s a privilege to have known Holly as a student, a young coach, and a colleague.  It’s a delight to see her perform on local community and professional stages; she’s absolutely one of the most talented actresses in our area.  I know she has to sacrifice acting opportunities in order to meet the demands of coaching a large team.
Akron is lucky to call Holly one of our own.”
—Elaine Fippin, Our Lady of the Elms

Working with these new friends and my coaches, I was able to explore voices and characters that were not me.  Although the words I presented were not my own (I was an Interper, after all), I was able to voice feelings and words that—even if they weren’t mine—I could somehow understand and relate.  I could use others’ words to make my competitors and judges feel something, experience something, relate to something.  In short, I discovered the power of words.  The power of language.  The power of speech.  And that has truly changed me.

Understanding the value and the strength of communication is a tool that I may never have acquired without speech and debate.  Now I may still sometimes be the shy, red-faced girl, but because of that one “yes,” I now understand how and why the spoken word is so important and so powerful.  After all, we share a human experience and a desire to be bigger than ourselves.  And language—speech—is how we demonstrate that to others.

As I found my voice and my passion, I also uncovered hobbies I would never have dared to try before.  I found the stage…the theater…my home away from home.  A place where I could be anyone—everyone—not me.  That one “yes” to speech and debate gave me the courage to walk onto a stage as someone else, and to live in someone else’s life for a while.  And that, my friends, is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

I have been able to explore feelings, scenarios, and situations that would not have existed without the magic of the theater—after all, how else could I go from grieving mother to a WWII photographer?  From a zany assistant stage manager on a goofy production to a nun battling what she believes to be wrong?  From one of Lear’s daughters to a young girl who has lost her father?  The theater makes that possible.  And without saying “yes” to speech and debate, I would never have discovered the theater.

So for those of you who know how important the stage is to me, you know I’d be missing a cornerstone of my life.  More importantly, without speech and debate’s impetus pushing me to become an actor, I would never have met the man I am proud to call my husband.

Again, you may think I jest, but I promise you it is true.  I met the man who would become my husband, Scott Custer, when we were working together on a show.  Our paths would never have crossed without that common bond of the theater.  And so it is that I owe my marriage—and indeed my current life—to that one “yes” in middle school…to this crazy activity we call speech and debate.

That is why this honor means so much to me. To be inducted into the Coaches Hall of Fame is an honor I never imagined I would have.  And to be presented with it now is honestly still a surprise.  Speech and debate is such an integral part of my existence that I cannot imagine what my life would be without it.  I certainly wouldn’t be able to stand up here in front of all of you and speak.  I wouldn’t be comfortable playing a part in a show, and I wouldn’t have Scott in my life.  In short, I wouldn’t be me.  I wouldn’t be the person standing before you now if I had not gone to that presentation in eighth grade.

Each and every person in this room has said “yes” to speech and debate—whether you’re a student competing, an administrator who sees and appreciates the value in what we do, a family member who supports a loved one, or a coach … one who knows what it is to help shape and guide our students and competitors to be what they never dreamed possible.  We have all said “yes” to speech and debate.  And I implore you to keep saying “yes” to speech and debate.  That shy, red-faced girl from so long ago KNOWS without a doubt that this activity is truly life-changing, and I am eternally grateful to those who have paved the way to continue this work.

“Holly was on my team all 4 years.  She is a dedicated, compassionate, and extremely meticulous young lady.  I was truly blessed when she came into my classroom door.  As a competitor she came in EVERY DAY after school to work on her cutting.  She is never happy unless what she works on is perfect.  She placed in final rounds at States and was our first National Qualifier in Drama from Stow-Munroe Falls HS.
Holly coached for me after she graduated from high school, and even after she graduated from college.  When she moved to Wadsworth and Mrs. Althoff needed an assistant coach, I recommended Holly, and she got the job.”
—Sue Theisen, Stow

And so I turn now to thank those people who have made this activity one of the greatest highlights in my life.  First and foremost, to my husband, Scott.  Scott, you have given me the greatest gift in the form of your unending support of my endeavors.  Your love and support enable me to spend countless hours working with my students, and I am so thankful to you for standing by me as I continue to do this thing I love.  To my family: mom and dad, you made sure that I was up and ready and on that bus all those years ago for each of the tournaments I attended.  Even when I could drive myself, mom was always awake to see me off.  And still, you ask every Saturday how “my kids” did.

Rich and Heather, thank you for listening to me—and even helping fill out master ballots for the Wooster tournament so many years ago before SpeechWire.  To my extended family—who is probably still trying to understand this crazy thing I do—your support and encouragement for my students’ successes and trials is unparalleled, and I thank you.  To the coaches—not only those who taught me (Sue, Jamison, Mandy, Liz, and Lisa), but all of the coaches in Ohio—thank you for saying “yes” to speech and debate!  And for giving of your time and yourselves so freely to this activity.  Your endeavors are so valuable, and the impact of your time and talent is visible.

To the coaches of Akron and Canton: You are my family, too!  I cherish all of the time we have spent together.  You are too numerous to name, but I count you amongst my family, and am grateful to have you in my life.  To my students—past, present, and future.  You are the reason I do this.  To see your growth is my reward.  You all have earned a special place in my heart.  Bill, thank you for everything you do for the students we coach, and for everything you do for me.  And finally, to John and Alex—thank you for presenting me with this incredible honor.  Your words were so kind, and your friendships and support are incredibly valuable to me.

To be inducted into the Hall of Fame is honestly one of the greatest honors I can imagine.  I know how much this activity has changed my life, and I am blessed to be able to work with students year after year.  My hope—my only hope—is that I have given my students even one-tenth of what I have received.  And if that is the case, I am eternally grateful.

“Holly is an efficient and effective leader in the Akron District.  She is a problem-solver and a master of tournament operations.  As a coach, I have learned much from her, as she is eager to share ideas and help others.  As a friend, I’ve grown to enjoy her company, sense of humor, and camaraderie at tournaments.  I’m glad to have Holly as a colleague and a friend.”
—Tricia Pletcher, Norton

The opportunity to give is worth more than I ever thought possible.  I thought competing was the be-all, end-all.  And once again, I was wrong.

To have the chance to give to students what I was given means a great deal to me, and I hope that through my efforts, I have helped them find the paths on which they belong.  To be recognized for my small contributions to this great activity is humbling.  I am incredibly honored to be inducted today.  I believe with all my heart that this activity, and its coaches and students, have given me so much more than I can ever repay.  But I will try and try and try to settle that debt.

From the bottom of my heart, I sincerely thank you for this honor, and I count my blessings every day that I said “yes” to speech and debate.  And I continue to say “yes” to speech and debate, knowing the value of this program.  As fellow members of the Ohio High School Speech League, and those who support its mission and its activities, I hope that you will all continue to say “yes” to speech and debate, and that you may reap the rewards as I have done.

Thank you.