"Phil" stands in a spotlight on Gravely Hall's stage, talking feverishly to his mustache that grew overnight. It speaks back to him in a Speedy Gonzalez voice. A well-spoken narrator fills the audience in on the story line, and a fourth, fifth and sixth voice chime in for dialogue. They all have different tones, different accents and character. Incredibly, they are all senior Jack Graham.
Graham was showing off his skills in a humorous interpretation speech along with other Danville High School forensics team members during the senior spotlight in front of a riveted audience. The night was so entertaining, it's easy to forget how much work these kids put in on their endeavors, how much of themselves they invest.
"I want them to have their own voice, to learn that they can have their own voice," says teacher and coach Steve Meadows. He sits behind a desk in his classroom preparing for an evening of practice the week before heading off to state competition. He seems spread thin when he talks about teaching, his role as Kentucky chairman for the National Forensics League, preparation for tournaments, the paperwork. But his face changes when he explains why the team is important to him.
As a high-schooler, Meadows was shy. He thought forensics looked fun.
"I felt kind of goofy and awkward as a kid, like everyone does," Meadows says, then pauses as he looks around his classroom. "But this is a safe place. You get to be someone else for a while, and eventually – you find out more about yourself."
Meadows became involved in all aspects of the team in high school, from competing to helping the coach with paperwork. Even the business end of things interested him. Then he placed third at state competition in his third year on the team, and the fever hit.
"In college, I was a student teacher at DHS, and I wanted to come back. I also wanted out of northern Kentucky."
Although DHS's team began 20 years ago, it was no longer active when Meadows came in 1994. He worked to change that, with help from administration and the school board.
This year, the team stood 42 members strong, and not everyone who tried out made the team. Meadows says he had to be reminded by one of his assistants: With all the work required in coaching, 42 is about all they can handle.
"We work with them one-on-one to develop their piece, then they're on their own," he said. Most of the kids who join are very goal-driven to begin with, or else they will develop that trait over time if they're serious about sticking with it, he says. They must practice independently a lot, and they learn how to deal with authority figures on a personal basis due to the type of coaching.
"I very purposely make the practices and how they deal with the coaches very structured, but that evolved over time. I wasn't always like that." Overall, he says, the whole experience helps them prepare for life. They have no fear, and the kids who return to visit tell Meadows they ace panel interviews because of forensics.
"I actually just wanted it for my college application," says former student Lindsay Mast who was on Meadows' first team in '94. She fully admits she had an elevated opinion of herself. She thought she would be lending her talents to the team, not the other way around. Already the president of the drama club, Mast thought, I'm an actress, I don't do speech. But she was surprised.
"I learned so much, thanks to Mr. Meadows, about sportsmanship. I'd never done group participation like this before, and it taught me how to behave."
Learning how to be a team player was invaluable to her, in every aspect of her life. Mast says she was extremely competitive, but was not athletic.
"A lot of people are like that and don't have an outlet for it. That can turn you into a really ugly person. I'm glad I found an outlet. I figured out how to channel it more productively, thanks to forensics and Mr. Meadows, in an especially important time – high school."
Now, Mast is a stay-at-home mom who has seriously taken up running as her outlet. She became a TV reporter out of college, then a producer at a CBS affiliate in Atlanta before winding up as a producer for The Weather Channel.
"I recall my first year of high school being very overwhelming," says Jennifer Thompson. She was on Meadows' team from '95-'98. Now a project manager at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Thompson says what she learned definitely overlapped with career.
She's a researcher who uses her writing skills quite often, and also has been interviewed on television programs, including Good Morning America. She almost quit forensics after receiving some harsh criticism from a judge following her first tournament.