Last night I had the great pleasure of judging a speech competition at a local elementary school.
To fully understand this, I need to tell you a little about the public schools in my community. They’re not great. (Apologies to those who disagree.) I live in Louisiana, where our schools consistently hover between 48th and 50th in performance nationally. (We get excited when Mississippi sucks worse than we do.)
And I’m sure I’ll catch some flack for saying this, but I’m going to say it. Except for the bright kids in the magnet schools – most of the kids in our public schools are those whose parents can’t afford private tuition and those who require services that private schools don’t offer. We’re talking the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum and the Special Ed kids. It is what it is.
In the years I’ve worked with speech competitions, I’ve coached kids for whom English isn’t their first language (sometimes it’s not even spoken in their homes). Hearing-impaired and autistic students. Children whose parents couldn’t afford to buy a costume prop so their child could look a little like Abraham Lincoln when delivering an excerpt from the Gettysburg Address.
But they practice and work hard, and a lucky few score high enough in their classroom competitions to make it to Speech Night.
So last night, when Rick (not his real name) stepped up on the stage, I took a breath. He embodied every stereotype of a bullied kid – heavy-set, pale-skinned, lumbering on the stage awkwardly. While the other boys had costumes or trendy attire, he had his collared shirt neatly tucked in, and was wearing a belt. Fifth grade boys don’t tuck their shirts in and wear belts when they have a choice. He looked out of place. He looked different.
He approached the microphone and introduced himself and his speech. He would be delivering a passage from Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down That Wall” speech in Berlin. Big shoes for an awkward kid.
He paused after his introduction, and words started pouring out of his mouth with an eloquence I cannot describe. His clumsiness disappeared, and chills ran through my body.
All of the awkwardness was gone, replaced with confidence and conviction.
He delivered the speech, and applause filled the room. And I realized that moment just might be a defining moment in this boy’s life.
The other contestants delivered their speeches, and the scores were being tallied while the nervous students waited. It was the moment of dread, where a handful of students were to be declared winners, and others would go home trophy-less and disappointed.
Rick was the winner. First place. He seemed a little stunned, and not quite sure how to handle himself with all the applause and praise.
You see, Rick is autistic. The playing field for him runs uphill. But last night, on the big stage in his school, he was The Best. Better than the athletic boys, better than the well-spoken girls.
As I looked over at the chairs where the kids who didn’t win were sitting, I saw a boy with his face in his hands, crying in front of his classmates and teachers. His speech had been from his idol, a professional athlete from our home town. And he really thought he was going to win.
Then I saw Rick. Beaming.
That other boy will have lots of trophies before he grows up, but this might be one of the only big wins for Rick. This trophy that he earned in fifth grade might be the motivation he needs to try harder, to overcome more. This trophy will mean the world to him.
Because a little validation goes a long way, even for kids. And last night, the judges, his teachers, and the world (at least the world as he knows it) said he was The Best.
I hope today he greets his classmates with a new-found confidence. I hope today he takes on his schoolwork with a little more energy. I hope the smile that he left the auditorium with last night doesn’t leave his face for a long, long time.
I hope he remembers what it feels like to be The Best.
This is awesome. Bless Renee for guiding me here, to share in this incredible moment.
Thank you, Liz, I’m glad you liked Rick’s story. And yes, Renee is quite a blessing to me. 🙂
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I love this story for so many reasons, but among the top are the validation that young boy received and the reminder that everyone in that room received and that you shared here. Thank you for sharing this, Lisha! (And now I’m off to share on my FB page.)
Thanks for the kind words, Mary. That boy’s world changed on that stage. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
What a sweet story! Thanks for sharing it with us.
Thanks for stopping by, Nina. Stories about little boys who overcome obstacles tug at my heart.
I teared up hearing that speech and teared up reading this story. Through your tidbits of information I learn so much. I am eternally grateful to be able to log on and see another person’s viewpoint. Simply amazing!
I’m so glad you’re here! There’s something to learn every day. My heart is happy that you’ve found something worth remembering here.
I adore this story. Thank you my friend.
I had a feeling a tale of a child who’s misunderstood would strike a chord with you.
I know that little boy–well, not him exactly, but one just like him. You might even have understated what this validation will mean to him in the future. Oh that all our children could be encouragers, the voices who urge every competitor to do his personal best, instead of discouragers who must tear others down to make themselves feel a little higher. Thanks so much for sharing this story with us!
We all know this little boy. It’s important that we all give him room to thrive in his own way, in his own time.
Reading this involved a fair number of goosebumps and tears, all of the very, very good variety. Thank you for allowing me to experience this moment.
Thanks you. This comment gave ME some validation. 😉
Loved this story.My daughter had a little Autistic boy in her kdg class last year and he was an amazing boy.I loved it when she would tell me of the feats he accomplished and even though I didn’t know his name I loved his spirit.This is a great post.
Thank you. I’m sure the boy in your daughter’s class benefited from her presence and support. We all need to be surrounded by folks who see what we CAN do, not what we do differently.
You are so right.I love acceptance and love.
Having lived on NOLA and been offered a job in Jefferson Parrish, I have your back on your assessment. That said, I love a good underdog story. I’m so glad he was fabulous and that he won because he deserved to win. Because he was truly the best. I am not surprised that you are involved on something so wonderful. You inspire me to get more involved in our own sad city school district.
I’ve always cheered for the underdog, even as a child.
That old expression, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” is alive and well in our home. I’ve planted trees on school campuses, worked with speech competitions, tutored students, volunteered in the office at our schools. A kind word goes a long way to a frazzled teacher or a frustrated student. You know…
Oh, yay! I loooooooove this story. Thanks, so much, Lisha for sharing it. I’m an advocate for those who seem the underdog, as I was such in many ways as a child. My little one, well, she’s a shining star, a super bright girl with the personality to go with it, and I know this an am forever grateful. But, she’s also as compassionate as Florence Nightengale, truthfully, and cheers on her peers who struggle more, who need a bit more help, most of them English language learners. We often discuss how important it is to lift people up in spirit. The school she attends now is also on the lowest socioeconomic level in our district, but we love and appreciate it so much, especially me, being a single mom, who also falls a little low on the totum pole. The special services offered are a blessing. Today I will attend an awards assembly during my lunchbreak because I was notified Maycee will be receiving an award. However, as much as I will be cheering for her, I will also be cheering on the little precious ones that unexpectedly will receive honors they weren’t anticipating, whose moms and/or dads can’t be there for them, and whose lives might head a different direction because of the encouragement and care that comes from a certificate that says “Job Well Done!”. What a marvelous story of triumph for this boy. I wish I could’ve heard his speech, too! Lots of hugs, Kasey
Thanks for sharing such a moving story. I hope this child continues to grow. Hope others realize that he is a wonderful gift from God.
I, too, was the underdog. I think it was the root of the compassion I have today.
Congrats to Maycee for her award, and thanks to you for remembering to be there for the other kids. I love hearing about that precious girl of yours!