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“Lowkey blacked out and don’t remember a thing.”
“Ready to get it over with.”
“Nervous. Really nervous.”
“Once assembly started, it was all a blur.”
“Giving the actual speech wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
When asking certain seniors what they think of senior speeches, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” lyrics seem to be a common theme: “palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.” This exact feeling is indeed what most seniors describe walking up to the podium feels like; they are nervous, “but on the surface [they] look calm and ready.” However, once situated and comfortable at the podium, they say that it is easier than it looks. Public speaking is a fear that many Upper Schoolers have, and senior speeches help conquer this fear. However, many seniors prefer a seat in the audience as opposed to being on stage.
A concept that began in the 1970s in the Girls School, senior speeches have developed into both an “educational experience for the student” and a “performative” one, says Vlastik Svab, Senior Speech Coordinator and Upper School English teacher*. However, before our current format, they existed in a very different form. Seniors in the 1970s were required to create a 30-minute presentation on a certain topic and then present it to their family and friends by the end of the year. These presentations were much more limiting than the speeches today in that they were mostly about, “politics, world issues, or domestic issues, such as capital punishment, abortion, marijuana, poverty, hunger, environment, etc.” says Collegiate alumna Missy Herod, Associate Director of Student Life. This presentation eventually transitioned into a speech that is not only an individual feat, but a “community activity,” says Svab.
Starting in the summer, rising seniors are assigned a mentor and a speech date. Once school starts, seniors work with their mentors on crafting a speech draft. Final speeches are due two weeks before the actual date, and they are subject to approval from the Senior Speech Committee, which is made up of 14 faculty members, as well as Svab. When the day arrives, seniors are given the opportunity to practice their speech in Oates to get comfortable being on stage.
Senior speeches challenge students to “demonstrate who [they] have become over [their] years at Collegiate,” says Svab. Whether it be through a song, dance, or even poem, seniors have found new ways to express themselves and share powerful, personal stories year after year.
While it is a graduation requirement, some students have mixed opinions about senior speeches. The current format, which has existed for at least 20 years, was created to “enlighten, educate, entertain, amuse, vex, and/or challenge” the audience. However, this is not always as easy as it looks. Sydney Lenz (‘17) has “mixed opinions about them.” Recognizing that senior speeches help seniors get more comfortable with public speaking, she also thinks that “some of the topics can seem forced and not genuine.” Similar to Lenz, Gillian Laming (‘17) “recognizes that a lot of seniors hate public speaking.” Laming finds senior speeches “entertaining and beneficial in building certain skills,” and she thinks it has helped her get to know her classmates better. Gwin Sinnott (‘17) shares that the actual speech part wasn’t as bad as she thought, “even though she was spazzing out every assembly” leading up to her speech. Overall, Sinnott loves the speech program, as “it highlights each individual in her grade so well.”
Laney Reed (‘18) offers a junior’s perspective, saying that senior speeches are “a good way to get to know someone that you otherwise wouldn’t know.” I agree with Reed; since senior speeches are required, we hear amazing speeches that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise due to some people’s fear of public speaking. Standing up in front of the whole Upper School takes a great amount of courage, and the fact that so many seniors are willing to share such personal moments speaks volumes about the Collegiate community. Claire Powell (‘18) thinks that the speeches “allow people to share something about themselves, whether it be directly or indirectly.” Sally Ennis (‘19) believes that the speeches allow the seniors to “look back on their high school career” as they craft a speech, hoping to show who they have become over the past thirteen years.
Katie Lee (‘16 and a current freshman at UVA), presents an alumni prospective, sharing that “senior speeches made assemblies much more interesting because [she] loved hearing what [her] classmates had to say, except sometimes they were a little cliche.” Due to the ever-present debates about schedules, instructional time, and time management, some believe that senior speeches are a waste of time and that we could be using our assembly time much more efficiently.
Anna Catherine Martin (‘18) thinks that senior speeches cause unnecessary stress, and she believes there are other ways to “fulfill the requirement” before graduation. She also thinks the topics are too strict and “many people’s ideas are shot down.” Svab, however, says that he rarely completely turns down an idea, “unless it is against fire code (e.g., cooking on stage),” or may be perceived as offensive or hurtful, and instead he tells the student to “readjust their approach.”
Senior speeches speak to the variety of our student body, and the sense of community here on campus felt when we hear a touching speech. Svab claims that “if [they] weren’t required, we wouldn’t get the variety” that so many seniors touch on through their speeches. Although senior speeches are a significant time commitment, Svab says that it is “one of the most amazing things he does” and he loves the moments the Collegiate community can experience together after a senior shares a personal and powerful story.
Herod, in particular, appreciates the persuasive speeches “in which a student is speaking passionately about a global or domestic issue.” Herod loves how she has heard “speeches that have given hope to those struggling and motivation” to those who need it. Some parents also support the speech program and how they allow their children to “leave their peers with a lasting impression,” says Mary Beth Baber, my mother and a local preschool teacher. While Lacey Sinnott (mother of Gwin Sinnott (‘17)) enjoyed watching the speeches, she thinks that senior speeches are “an added stress” for the students. However, Sinnott does like how the speeches allow you to “think about life and more than just school.”
The senior class is full of many talented and amazing people: dancers, singers, athletes, and those with amazing stories to tell. If we were to get rid of senior speeches, we would lose a program that often provides a connection between the seniors and the other grades. Not many schools provide a community in which students feel comfortable telling the whole school something as personal as a mental disorder they have struggled with, the death of a relative, or the divorce of their parents. I think senior speeches should stay how they are because they are the perfect opportunity to share something nobody knows about you. I can’t wait for next year when my grade is up there speaking!
*NOTE OF FULL DISCLOSURE: Svab is both the Senior Speech Coordinator and faculty adviser for The Match, which also includes teaching the Upper School English elective Writing For Publication and granting final approval of all published articles, including this one.
Featured image courtesy of Collegiate School.