The Speech Contest
I arrived for the speech contest an hour before it began. I was one of four judges; the other three were Japanese English teachers.
We had been told a week in advance to prepare for our duties.
We exchanged greetings in the hallway, and I learned from all three teachers that this was a regular gig for them, but their first time in this part of Hiroshima. I told them it was my first time, ever. Their expressions became grave; they exchanged quick looks with each other and wished me good luck in sad, solemn tones. I began to feel worried; suddenly my preparations felt inadequate.
A small talkative woman then led us to a dimly lit room just off the main corridor. She marveled at how tall I was and grew even more excited when I told her I was from Jamaica. She had been there twice, she said, and her daughter worked at the embassy in Kingston. She thought it the most enchanting country she’d ever visited. Apparently she had been all over the island, and had been deeply moved by the scenic beauty of Ocho Rios. Smiling into my face, she asked where I was from.
I told her Montego Bay.
She looked disappointed.
Having lost interest in the conversation, she bowed and excused herself, promising to return with coffee.
The other teachers didn’t seem to notice.
We sat at a low table in the centre of the small room. Dan Sensei, the only other male among us, stood up and drew the curtains and cracked the windows. It was the beginning of summer, and already the morning air was humid.
Folders were then removed from bags, notes exchanged and discussed, opinions offered and contemplated. All in Japanese. I used the time to browse through the pamphlet of the day’s program, and look about the room. There was a painting of a kabuki actor in one corner. He had a snarl on his face, but it was more an expression of pain than anger, as if he suffered from a toothache. I thought the artist had subtle skills.
Ueda Sensei said, “Dwight san.”
“Hai,” I responded, turning to face her.
She smiled and said in slow careful English, “What do you think about today’s competition?”
A simple enough question but I found myself having difficulty answering it. All three teachers looked at me expectantly. For a moment the room went completely silent. Then I said, “It’s good for the children.”
The response sounded horribly common coming out of my mouth. They might have asked me what I thought about milk. I fumbled for something else to say but my mind was blank. Dan Sensei frowned, collapsing his mouth into a thin, lop-sided line that made him look toothless. Ueda Sensei folded her arms and studied the table.
The silence returned.
I cleared my throat and added urgently, “Because it improves their English.”
Dan Sensei jerked his head back and nodded vigorously, “Ah! So, so, so! Tashkani, ne.” ‘Exactly.’
Kimoto Sensei, the quietest among the group, smiled shyly at me. Her teeth were very white.
I wondered what was keeping the coffee lady.
My legs had gone numb. I had been sitting with my calves tucked under my thighs the whole time. An awkward position because of my height, but a necessary one, since we were sitting in a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats and the seiza sitting position was deference to the décor.
The coffee lady finally came back, bustling into the room with her tray overcrowded with teacakes and cups. She bowed repeatedly, apologizing for her tardiness, “Sumimasen! Gommenasai! ‘I’m sorry!’ and placed the tray in the centre of the table.
To put her at ease, everyone smiled and said in English, “Thank you.”
She tittered and said extravagantly, completing the joke, “You’re welcome!”
We all had a good laugh. Dan Sensei overdid it a bit and erupted into a series of hacking coughs. We sipped our coffee and politely ignored him. Eventually he had to excuse himself and leave the room. I reflected that by the time he got back his coffee would be cold. The room was so warm; muggy wind was blowing through the windows. When Dan Sensei returned he ignored his beverage and his cake.
The coffee lady, reverting to the role of chaperone, looked up at the clock. It was ten minutes till the competition. We had to leave immediately.
The main hall was already filled. Officials were shaking hands and exchanging bows. Parents and well-wishers were already seated, fanning off the heat and fussing with digital cameras and small children. Coaches could be seen giving last minute advice, discussing strategy in low, urgent tones. Most of the students looked subdued, often nodding mechanically and saying, “Hai, hai…hai,” to instructions probably memorized as perfectly as their rehearsed pieces. I could tell from their body language that most were tense. Some looked bored. While others, the confident ones, were cool. I had never liked this group; back in school I was always a nervous wreck. I envied them their self-possession.
Just then a slender woman in a sharp black business suit approached us. She introduced herself as Miyawaki san. I noticed she was looking at me especially, as if waiting for me to say something. So I repeated my greeting, and my name. She pointed at her nose. I became confused. She said, “Dwight san, Naomi desu.” ‘I’m Naomi.’
I finally understood. She was the person who had contacted me by phone about the job. At the time she hadn’t used her surname, a common practice in Japan. I thought it unreasonable that she now expected me to recognize her by voice. But she reminded me that she’d been to the school where I taught, twice, on separate business. And we had talked then.
I had no recollection of this. But of course I had to pretend that I did.
I looked about the room distractedly, wondering where we would sit.
Naomi gave us nametags, notepaper (not that I needed anymore) and grading sheets. The grading sheet outlined the criteria by which the contestants would be judged: delivery, content, language and so on. Six schools were participating. There would be three rounds, from grade nine to eleven, each consisting of ten students. A winner, and second and third place finishers, would be decided for each round.
Naomi then escorted us to our seats: at the front of the room, just below the podium. A bottle of water, a bright yellow pen, and an additional nametag (this one mounted on a small contraption) were arranged neatly on each desk. The chairs were obviously new, with big luxurious handles. The whole arrangement seemed so impeccable I felt I would spoil it by sitting. But then an invisible announcer promptly instructed us to remain standing. He introduced each judge by name then gave brief opening remarks.
Timely applause followed.
The contest began.
Each student had memorized a piece of English literature, which they now recited. Some had memorized poems, others excerpts from stories, others whole stories. Before each contestant began their name was announced by a moderator, a sluggish woman who spoke each word with stinginess, as if reluctant to part with the syllables. Everyone seemed grateful when she finally did. The contestants would then shout “Hai!” bow to the audience, bow to the judges, and walk briskly up the steps to the podium. Some trotted. When they were through the bows were repeated, accompanied by applause, and they returned to their seats—to my immediate left.
At the beginning most of them appeared to be doing well. This only made the judging harder. But as the contest wore on I became keener, and now knew exactly what to look for. I was in my element: identifying mispronunciations, poor intonation, lack of eye contact, unnatural pauses. I was also intimidating them with random frowns, and deliberately avoided eye contact as they walked by while I graded their performance. The few times I looked up I caught swift bows and imploring expressions. I suddenly realized I was being appeased. I was flattered, but remained impassive. I had unwittingly gained the distinction of being the tough judge.
There were of course the occasional casualties.
One girl had been reciting a lengthy poem rather well when she suddenly paused. Everyone waited, hoping she would recover. But the pause stretched beyond a minute, then three, then five. We feared the worst. The room became quiet. She seemed set to cry. A baby whimpered somewhere in the back of the room, maybe to show support, and this was what set her off. She cried softly at first and sparse applause broke out. Then she cried a bit louder and the applause grew. By the time she began wailing she received a standing ovation, judges included. This overwhelmed her, so she screamed. In the end she had to be escorted off-stage.
Another boy had apparently decided that vocal projection and expressiveness were to be the highlights of his routine. So he shouted his piece into the microphone, and gestured threateningly at no one in particular. Eventually he knocked over the mic stand. The resulting din was so piercing it felt like it was coming from somewhere inside my head. He then picked up the mic stand, righted it, and the abuse began afresh.
When the contest was finally over we submitted our grade sheets and took our last break—as judges we were allowed three breaks, one after each segment. Outside, I spoke with the other teachers. Apparently all four of us had identified the same persons as likely winners, which meant our evaluations were consistent. I felt relieved.
On my way to the bathroom I was ambushed by a woman who informed me that her daughter had competed in the first round. She called the girl to her side. I recognized her; she had done well; and I had given her a favourable grade. The mother suddenly nudged the child in her side. She quickly took a small pink box from her pocket.
Handing it to me, she said, “Dozou.” ‘Here you are.’
It was filled with small stickers of anime characters. I smiled and thanked her.
“Do itashimashite,” she replied. ‘You’re welcome.’
Her mother reproached her for not speaking English. I frowned clownishly, pretending to be offended. The girl chuckled, and asked me to sign her notebook. By the time I did the moderator was back on the microphone.
It was time to announce the winners.
In the short time I was outside, the room had been transformed. A new table was now on stage, filled with silverware. The podium had been removed, to provide more space.
The president of the local education board, a sturdy man with a buzz haircut, was on hand to make the presentations. Before he did so he made a short speech and took a mouth organ from his breast pocket and gave a small performance. When he was through no one clapped.
The contestants still sat to my left. On hearing their names they stepped forward and received their prizes. Third place finishers got medals. Second place got plaques. First place trophies.
All the awardees were expected; there were few surprises. They received their prizes with dull courtesy, leaving the celebration to the audience.
After that the president congratulated them (from his voice I recognized him as the invisible announcer), thanked everyone for their support, then quickly took his leave.
Naomi then took the stage. She invited more applause for the students and instructed them to return to their seats.
What followed then was pure disaster.
Slowly training her eyes on me, she said, “Mr. Thompson, could you please come forward and give a brief address to the contestants.”
I hadn’t anticipated this. I had nothing prepared.
My stomach was in knots; my feet felt like stone. With great effort I approached the stage. With even greater effort I attempted to speak. When I did manage to say something the words came out slurred, as if I were recovering from a stroke. My hands were shaking. The salty sting of sweat had found its way into my eyes, incapacitating me further. I blinked repeatedly to get the water out of my eyes, seeing people in the audience as if in a dream, straining to hear what I was saying. My voice sounded far away and thin in my own ears, as if it wasn’t mine. And the contestants, who just moments before had stood before me, nervous wrecks, bristling under my severity, had become my judges. I could see them marking me down for lack of vocal clarity, poor posture, incoherent speech, limited range of vocabulary. Even as I spoke in my native tongue.
But I persevered. In the end I managed to cap off my ramblings with a pause long enough to be read as a cue of completion. The applause started slowly and died quickly. I walked off the podium and back to my seat. Despite myself I anxiously looked around at faces, for reassurance that I wasn’t alone in my misery. But all eyes avoided mine, even small children. So I slumped back into my chair, deflated, wondering what grade I had got.
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