The pressure, self-imposed, was on all 11 young speakers: A win in Gainesville would carry the speaker to the state competition, and a win there, to the national contest in Phoenix.
In Phoenix, the winner of the 2012 Rumbaugh Historical Oration Contest would receive a $3,000 scholarship.
But first things first.
In the local competition — conducted over two evenings — the speakers would, for the first time, deliver their speech to an audience they mostly didn’t know, including judges, a title generating jitters by itself. There would also be family, teachers, other friends, and a few fans of oratory, all gathered at First Presbyterian Church on South Enota Drive.
Each student was to give a speech on some aspect of the revolutionary era, a topic of their own choosing and an issue still with us in our own time. Among their topics: achieving rights for women; creating more opportunities, generally; the problems of hard economic times; and the idea that some past leaders weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Remarks were to be between five and six minutes long, with penalties for missing that window on either side.
While trying to remember their every carefully considered word and phrase, these young people also wanted to appear at ease, to make eye contact, and to make every gesture look natural, unpracticed.
That’s a lot to manage.
But they also knew the speech itself was the heart of the matter: words used precisely, the argument, the logic, the supporting evidence — all solid.
And, by the way — no notes allowed.
Most of these young people had never delivered a formal address. Butterflies would be in full flight.
The Rumbaugh Oration Contest is sponsored by National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, whose local Lyman Hall Chapter president is Ed Rigel: “The Rumbaugh competition encourages young people to develop a deeper interest in American history and to gain a more informed understanding of the relationship between past and present events. The whole process is educational. Writing a good speech takes serious, critical thinking.”
John Beale, chair of the Lyman Hall Chapter’s oration committee, said, “We’re proud of the work these young people do. When you read the short bios each of them put together you see they have high aspirations. When you heard them speak, you could tell how hard they’re willing to work to get where they want to go.”
The most difficult argument, perhaps, was shouldered by Erika Alcantar, a sophomore, one of seven speakers from Chestatee High School taught by Ernest Davis.
The challenge she set for herself? Making the case that the British Currency Act of 1764 was a major cause of the Revolution. It is never easy to connect currency to the everyday buying and selling and work that is called “the economy.” But she confronted it head on.
The winner of the two-night competition was a freshman from Lumpkin County High School, Carley Stamps, with a speech entitled “A Better Us, A Better U.S.” Her remarks were inspired by a forbearer, Ebenezer Carley. That direct link to the revolution and Ebenezer’s ties to Ethan Allen and George Washington, let her tell a story that piqued her listeners’ curiosity.
Naomi Wade, another freshman from Lumpkin County High, took second place with her speech on “Women’s Rights: A Battle Not Yet Won.” She focused on Abigail Adams, thinker, writer and first lady.
Third place went to Joel Carter Groves, a sophomore at Chestatee High, with a speech on how the Declaration of Independence influenced people here and around the world to seek independence.
These three top finishers received cash prizes from SAR’s local chapter.
Stamps will move on to the state competition, set for April 28 in Barnesville, where the winner will receive a $500 cash prize, along with expenses for the national competition. Wade will be the alternate.
Last year’s local winner, Sam Bishop, who also did well at the state level and nationally, left everyone with a thought in this year’s local competition that, were it widely heeded, might improve the tone of our civil discourse.
Bishop, now a junior at Riverside Academy, cited George Washington’s last Rule of Civility and Decent Behaviour — the 110th. “Labor to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.”
Tack Cornelius, a Gainesville resident, was an aide to Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, and from 1989 to 2002, wrote speeches for two CEOs at Bellsouth in Atlanta. He is an occasional columnist.