Chances are that at some point in your life, you’ve seen a teen comedy. It’s equally likely that your reaction fell into one of these three categories–
Those people are way prettier than anyone I ever knew in high school.
Damn they are getting laid a lot compared to anyone I ever knew in high school. Even the jocks.
and of course,
No WAY that would ever happen.
Yet I have always nursed the fantasy that somehow, some way, there would be a real movie that genuinely represented my high school experience. Even though my experience was not typical.
I was angry and awkward and nerdy and not at all athletic… no, not that. Sadly, that part was completely typical. I have been teaching in public school for over twenty years and my colleagues and I are grimly aware that roughly ninety percent of our high school charges are having a miserable time of it. (The other ten percent, usually the football team and about a third of the cheerleading squad, are having the peak social experience of their lives.) A secret most people don’t know is that us teachers hate that status quo as much as most students do but we don’t have any clue about how to change it, either.
But I digress. What I’m getting at is that the atypical part of my experience was, during my senior year of high school, I found my people.
Speech and debate nerds.
Not as flamboyant as theater nerds. Not as dorky as chess club or National Merit Scholars. (Although there was considerable overlap among all of these.) It was the place where I found a home, where my talents for writing, for drawing, for eloquent ranting and vicious snark all could be channeled into academic credit. After trying out the student newspaper, the student literary magazine, and honors English and finding them all wanting (mostly because they refused to accommodate what I thought they should be doing) the speech team turned out to be an exact fit for my skill set, which at the time was somewhere between aspiring to be the next Jim Steranko, aspiring to be the next Ron Goulart, and aspiring to be the next Bruce Jay Friedman (I was bitterly aware of how likely it was that his Lonely Guy articles in Esquire were predicting my future. But he was still a Real Writer.)
(Yeah, I read Esquire in high school. And not just for the occasional topless pic. I was weird, okay?)
But this… my God, it was made for me. I could write — both for myself and for my classmates, I often transcribed rants and learned how to shape them into actual finished pieces. I could draw — I practiced a lot of drawing and composition and inking since illustrations were often required. For a speech about the Shadow I ended up doing replica versions of Steranko’s Pyramid paperback covers as visual aids. Posters done with marker mostly. (This was in 1979, long before PowerPoint.)
And I could snark. Oh God, could I ever. It helped that our coach, a sometime standup comic himself, found us amusing. (We’re still in touch and he still does the occasional gig. I got to take Julie to a one-man cabaret show he did a couple of years ago and she said, “My God, your old friends are all SO COOL!”)
Yeah, that’s my old coach, Mr. DeLay, rocking it on stage in a satire of Catholic dogma he wrote himself. And he is pretty damn cool for a retired debate teacher.
That was the great thing about it. We weren’t cool, not in real life, but on the speech and debate circuit? We ruled. Some of us even ended up doing actual stand-up for real. (Hi Larry, hi Alan, hi Dwight!) Below is a clip I found on YouTube that captures the weird middle ground between nerdity and hipster comedy that we occupied.
It’s college competition, not high school, but that’s the vibe, believe me.
Anyway, for years afterward, as I edged up into being an actual working writer — nowhere near the credits or stature of Goulart or Friedman, but I do get the occasional royalty check — I speculated every so often about writing some sort of comedy piece using the teenage debate-nerd subculture as a springboard. It amused me considerably to discover that this particular subculture is thriving on the internet today.
I did get as far as an incomplete 140-page screenplay manuscript when I was a freshman in college, but it is long gone. Just as well, really.
I never did get around to finishing it and now I don’t have to, because we have Speech and Debate.
This is a fun movie for anyone, but I daresay that there are only a few of us that experienced flashbacks watching it. The blurb doesn’t do it justice, it’s almost generic: Based on the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway play, “Speech & Debate” follows three teenagers brought together by a series of mishaps. Frustrated by the hypocrisy they see in their parents, teachers and the entire school board, the unlikely trio set out to find a common truth and make their voices heard as they revive a defunct school club and take on the world.
Well, no. It’s about three frustrated teens whose ambitions far outstrip the outlets available to them. Solomon wants to write real articles for the school paper. Diwata wants the drama teacher to recognize her talent as an actress. Howie wants to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school. The school board shoots them down, which is extra-maddening for Diwata and Solomon because both of them have parents as members of the board. The board suggests that perhaps they could revive the speech-and-debate club instead, and Solomon realizes this idea might actually work for them. Hilarity ensues.
I won’t spoil it for you but I will go down the line and point out all the places where the film actually made me have vivid flashbacks.
Nobody at school understands what the competition actually entails. God yes. Not even most teachers, not even when we did presentations for the faculty.
Failed actress drama queen. I assure you that not only is Sarah Steele’s Diwata not over-the-top, she is actually understated compared to the real thing. When she vomits fake blood during her reading of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, I was viscerally reminded of Heather, who was a goth girl before there was such a thing as goth girls. (Heather did a terrifying rendition of the final scenes of Carrie when Carrie kills her mother that got her to the state finals.) I had a mad crush on her and eventually when I got to college and got a coolness upgrade we got together and even ended up living together for a couple of years. I’m afraid we were too young to pull it off and when our idealism crashed headlong into my drinking, her drug habit, and our abject poverty, it ended rather badly. But watching Sarah Steele’s Diwata I was forcibly reminded of her and also of my old friend Anne-Marie, and all the snarky laughs we had back in the day. Although the movie gets it wrong about one thing– the abbreviation for Dramatic Interpretation isn’t “DI,” it’s “Interp.” A quick Google showed me this is still true some forty years later.
Enraged student crusading journalist…. Swear to God I had every fight with journalism and English teachers Solomon has with his in this film. So much so that at one point my friend Joe and I actually tried to get our own zine off the ground. (A tale I have told elsewhere.) As it turned out, After-Dinner Speaking, or “ADS” (essentially stand-up comedy) was the perfect home for my snotty brand of vicious humor, and I also was often employed behind the scenes by my more academically-minded peers to punch up their political material.
…Who can’t hold his liquor. Also me. Unlike Solomon, however, despite the vomiting and blackout behavior I kept trying until 1986 when I gave it up and got sober. Which is why, despite being academically gifted and an award-winning speech team competitor, I was thrown out of five different colleges. For cause. Kids, trust me, don’t do what I did. Still picking up the pieces from that.
Going clubbing at tournaments, despite being underage. Absolutely yes. We did love to rock and we would often sneak out of the hotel after bed check to go dancing. See, we were giant nerds, but we were still ragingly hormonal teenagers. Those who scorned debate tournaments as unfit for cool kids somehow did not realize that these events also were unsupervised time, out of town, away from the parents, with girls who would talk to us. At home we were just dorks. At speech meets we were playas, baby.
We were also enamored of the then-nascent punk-rock movement and somehow managed to combine that with the button-down Young Republican vibe of the high school debate circuit — musical preference was a shortcut for us to sort out who was cool enough to pal around with. And it was a way to talk to girls. “We’re sneaking out to X club to see Y band tonight, you should come.”
In later years, one of the more rock-n-roll types from those days, Cagney, ended up fronting her own band: Toy. She let it go when she and her husband moved to Arizona but there are a few clips out there.
It tickles me no end that she was able to do that. Not too many folks get to live out their high school dreams, but quite a few of us on the speech team managed it. The ones that didn’t end up in rehab, anyway. Several went into acting and turned pro; John even was with Second City’s touring company for a while. We had others that went into politics– rarely as actual candidates, it was always as lawyers and fixers and campaign staff. Several of us became novelists; even I manage to get stories into print every so often. The occasional musician, either rockers like Cagney or classical types like Rob. The thing is, when you get over your panic at having to present yourself to an audience, you get to be a much better advocate for doing the things you genuinely want to do. For me, whether it’s being in front of a roomful of kids or doing a talk at Barnes and Noble, the old techniques Mr. DeLay pounded into all of us are still there for me to call on and I still use them.
LGBT issues. Oh yeah… except in 1979, they were mostly closeted. But we all knew. Most of us, anyway, though I often wonder about a debate girl that grew up to be a leading anti-gay-marriage advocate– all right, it was Maggie Gallagher— if she knew how many of her friends back then ended up coming out as gay, to say nothing of several coaches on the circuit. There were a LOT of them.
Students hooking up with teachers. Yeah, it happened. Kids weren’t the only ones who adopted an out-of-town-playa attitude. Oddly enough, I remember one particular couple rather fondly, we all were kind of rooting for them to pull it off. A teacher left her husband for a buddy of mine and they were living together for a while, but it didn’t work out.
I admit that it bothered me about the movie that the debate-circuit thing ends up just being a subplot. I was kind of hoping that our plucky team of misfits would return to competition and eventually triumph, but the movie goes in a different direction. Nevertheless we still enjoyed it a great deal, including my wife Julie, who got NONE of the references. (I was explaining a lot as we watched. It wasn’t necessary, I just couldn’t help myself.)
There was only one thing that rang false about the film. It’s set in Salem, Oregon. I assure you that not only is Salem very familiar with high school debate, a great many grads end up being lawyers and government types working there in later life. I racked up quite a few trophies in Salem, during both high school and college. It’s a HUGE debate town. No way would there be a high school in Salem without a squad.
But apart from that, the movie mostly nails it. I was there and I’m telling you, the interp kid doing Sophie’s Choice, the debater who talks reallyreallyfast, the incredibly snotty Christian team colliding with the snarky hipster kids… yeah, that all happened. ALL. OF. IT.
And even at my age, even with three decades of teaching and being sober and happily married and all of that… it still was weirdly fulfilling to see all that teenaged trauma dramatized on screen. I know it was for most of my old high school posse too, because they forwarded the trailer to everyone they knew before I did. I guess representation really does matter.
You should check it out. Especially if you were an awkward hot mess in high school. And come on, you know you were… because everybody was.
Back next week with something cool.