Relaxing Like a President [read: you’re right, there’s no such thing]

Happy long weekend everyone! Unless you’re Neena and you have next Friday off instead for some “Winter Carnival.” The quotes aren’t because I don’t believe her, they’re because I think it’s a funny alternative. Only at Williams. Regardless, she drove down to kick off this long weekend on Friday night (all by herself!) and entered the household of Apt. 522 where Jenny and I tried to entertain her endlessly. Shall I say we succeeded in doing so? Yeah, sure.

To start off Saturday, we prepared to see our fellow Pine View folks from high school for the Harvard National Invitational Speech & Debate Tournament. It’s exactly what it sounds like. For an entire weekend, Harvard hosts a tournament for high school students pursuing interpretative, speaking, and debate-oriented events competitively. What does that look like? Essentially suits everywhere. There are many different types of events at these tournaments, the national circuit, that draw in young and bright students. I, many many years ago, was one of them. Don’t act too surprised.

I was an extemporaneous speaker for my 4 years of high school. I would write speeches, that would be around 7 minutes long, based on current event topics with only the materials I was capable of bringing to the tournament. The pre-tournament process was always ridden with massive filing parties and Economist magazine subscriptions. The tournament itself involved a lot of thinking on one’s toes and quickly wandering into a room to deliver the speech only 30 minutes after being given the ‘pivotal topic at hand.’ Speechies out there, you get it.

Bowl cuts from the glory days.

Coming back as a volunteer judge is something I look forward to every single year since moving to Boston. It’s the very least I can do for a group of people, and an entire community, that shaped my high school career and most of my formative years. I lived for the early morning bus rides and staying far from Sarasota with most of my best friends competing in our respective events. The thrill of advancing past preliminary rounds is a thrill I’ll never forget, no matter how nerdy it sounds. The cheering of my team (a sustained roar), a force to be reckoned with, while on stage is one of my fondest memories. Speech, as we called it, was my family.

It’s where I advanced to finals as a novice, in my first year (against all odds and everyone’s beliefs) on the team and found my confidence. It’s where I met my first A.J., wandering down the halls of a qualifying tournament for Nationals. I lost my voice every single weekend, literally, and found it again every time I went to speak, figuratively (and cheesily). I have the Extemp Girl Gang, and we’d love to release a mix-tape soon. I had my people. We laughed, cried, celebrated, recovered, and lived together. I spent more time around those humans than absolutely anyone else. And every year, some of them come back for the same reason I do as college students and then I get to meet many more of them, high schoolers right now competing as I once did.

It wasn’t a gender-exclusive gang, we just liked the words “Girl Gang” together.

Coincidentally, I also judge finals every single year for the event I committed to back in 2010. It really should be renamed, “The Sneha Pandya Harvard Finals Round of Extemporaneous Speaking.” And it has been such an honor to be a competitor and to be a judge on the other side. In that way, I’ve been participating in my varsity sport (fight me) for the past 7 years now.

This weekend was no different, though the very first student I’ve coached at camp broke to the top 50 in her event (of over 260!) and I’m gushing over her. Sana, you’re a rockstar if you’re reading this. I was in and out of judging rounds for three days, happily staying at a hotel with the team, and gratefully disconnected from the daily routine. While in Harvard Square, in between rounds, I grabbed my favorite Mate Late at Crema Cafe, cuddled with my galentines, and fangirled over my kiddos.

Look at that rockstar.

But honestly, nothing has changed. So, a few highlights of those past 7 years:

  1. Giving my first practice speech in front of my two captains (really the giants of my life) was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. It was 14 minutes long, and I cried my way through it. They helped me get back up as it could only get better from there.
  2. Having my captain fix my shirt collar for my first finals round. I used to fix hers right before she spoke each round. When she tapped me on the shoulder, telling me to turn around, that one little gesture meant the world to me.
  3. Dressing up in togas as a member of debate (for one or two hilarious tournaments that Grace and I never prepared for) for a tournament over Halloween weekend.
  4. Winning my first tournament, the novice state tournament, and with the largest possible grin on my face. Pretty sure it froze that way. Don’t believe me? Feel free to follow up for photographic proof.
  5. Falling to the ground after I surprisingly advanced to the top 24 at my final tournament, Nationals, after graduating. It’s the people who held my hand and helped me back up, who followed me around and watched me speak, who gave me wings that I treasure the most.
  6. Walking into Harvard Finals as a competitor to a room filled with people sitting on the stairs because they couldn’t get seats. And having my friends run in right after me, after their own round, saying they would never miss it.
  7. Hugging my successors as they advanced each year, calling them after they received results, watching them win from far away while knowing I was never really far. Staying connected with them all has been a gift because they’re the biggest legacy I have.
Captured: the moment before I fell to the ground. Elegantly, mind you.

A lot of alumni came back for the weekend and it was pretty emotional seeing these high school kids succeed because of the team we helped set up. I think back to myself before I found Speech & Debate [read: it definitely found me, in a non-creepy way] and I remember someone with very little descriptors. Was she passionate about anything? Probably not. {Kidding, she really liked books then too.} Was she a leader? Oh, no. She’d never have called herself that. Did people know her? Maybe, as the one who sat in the back of class, rarely ever raised her hand, and was quiet.

The team built me up in ways that I could never have imagined. Suddenly, I became who I am today. I like to think I’m the same person who stood in front of rooms of over 100 people, gave my speech, and owned those 7 minutes. Every single round was mine and I walked away from it proud and satisfied. And, sometimes, I catch that happening in real life when someone will tell me, “Hey, Sneha, did you know you’re a great speaker?” I always answer with, “Yeah, it’s what I do.” It really is what we did, what we continue to do, what we love and encourage everyone to do today. Without it, I have no idea who I would be. As Naba, one of my Girl Gang members, said, “I’d be a quarter of who I am.” It’s clearly quantifiable. Each individual member of my Speech & Debate team helped build me, and every other member, and after leaving it, I was ready to just keep building. Since that’s what you do the rest of your life, mostly by yourself, I was truly lucky to have someone help make that first push in the right direction.

That’s a family.

So, if you’ve learned anything about what my weekend was like (filled with nostalgia and all) and you have someone you know in high school, please do me a favor and mention Speech & Debate. No one ever regretted having the ability to articulate how they feel and what they think. It taught me to become a team player while participating in a competitive individual event. Now, how is that even possible? There’s some magic in it, I bet. It’ll change their life, I guarantee you that. It sure changed mine.

The first time I judged, back in senior year. Give back to what you love, right?

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