The pearls were pink. Semi-precious. Reminiscent of another era, of the kind of woman who hosted and curtsied and complied. Not me.
But they brought me good luck. I carefully fastened them the mornings of tournaments, counting them like prayer beads while I prepped, centering them at the base of my neck before each round. They were sacred, a staple of my Friday and Saturday best. On laundry days, with only blue button-downs remaining, I traded the pink for white. Fashion first, I always say.
“Wear a skirt. It shows more ethos,” an elderly female judge once instructed me on a finals ballot. I wrote off her criticism as a relic of old Texan society.
She probably liked my pearls, but not enough to give me the “1”. My pants clearly offended her.
My presence offended others.
I was typically the only woman in finals. Sometimes there were two of us, but from local to state to national competitions, debate was a man’s world.
I can’t even call myself a debater without provoking sneers or eye rolls from the self-appointed “real” debaters. Mostly males, they competed in Policy and Lincoln Douglas, CX and LD. There’s a hierarchy within Speech and Debate, and I, an extemper, represented the “softer” side.
“She’s all style, no substance,” debaters sneered. CXers valued strategy and speed and spit. LDers valued philosophy and normative prescriptions. Of course there’s a beauty to debate—an intentional, rigorous system. But its beauty exists independently from its superiority complex.
My event, extemporaneous speaking, demands clear argumentation, synthesis, and a high-level knowledge of current events and credible news sources. Successful extempers perform—flair, humor, and accessibility win.
Here’s how it works: extempers crowd into a gym or auditorium, awaiting prep for the first round, or prelims. We sit silently as the moderator explains the rules:
Draw three topics. Choose one. You have 30 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech—no notes. The clock starts when you draw. Arrive on time; the earlier, the better, as long as your judge is present.
“Good luck,” she says, somewhat forebodingly, with a definitive “ck” sound.
She pauses. We exhale.
She then calls all “Speaker Ones” forward. Speakers are first divided by subfield—Foreign or Domestic Extemp, FX or DX, and then by rooms, or sections; typically six to seven speakers per section and anywhere from 10 to 30 sections, depending on the size and level of the tournament.
“Speaker One, please come draw,” the moderator says. The phrase still gives me goose bumps.
The Speaker Ones of each section approach the central table, if a gym, or the stage, if an auditorium. A business envelope confronts them. They flip over the envelope and draw three topics. For FXers like me, topics often mimic The Economist's most recent “Leaders”:
“How should opposition leaders respond to the coup in Venezuela?” a topic asks.
“How can Brazil ensure sustained economic growth?”
You get the point.
I relished the position of first speaker. It was memorable, powerful—it allowed me to set the bar, gave me more time to debrief with my coach, relax between rounds, stop the runs in my tights. If not first, I preferred last speaker, which was typically sixth or seventh in the room. The last word always leaves a mark.
They used to call me “Little Tex” after Tex Dawson, the best extemper in the state. He was nationally renowned, too—Texas’ crown jewel in his day.
I “earned” the name when I broke finals freshman year at TFA State. It was rare for a freshman; hadn’t been done since Tex.
I placed last that year. I can’t remember what I spoke on—then, or the two other times I “finaled” at State. But I remember shaking. I remember wearing a black shirtdress. I don’t remember my pearls, but I do remember an audience member whispering to my sister that I looked “sexy.”
I remember being first speaker.
Freshman year ended well: I quarter-finaled at Nationals. I had high hopes for the next three years of my extemp career.
As a sophomore, I double- and triple-qual’d for State, racking up points for fun. But I placed 3rd in State semis, and only the top 2 moved on.
I was shocked. My ego took a hit. I remember moping around, unsure of what to do with myself, complaining to my coaches until one pulled me aside and shut me up.
“Try harder,” he said. “Humble down.” He held my gaze until he was sure I felt his words. They hurt.
I’m not sure I listened to him. I didn’t practice more, and I suffered for it. I placed 3rd in finals at Districts, the qualifying tournament. Again, only the top 2 moved on.
Suffice it to say my nickname faded with age.
I mostly won on style. Substance was irrelevant, forgettable in the face of crystalline delivery. Zero fluency breaks, solid walking pattern, meaningful gestures, sustained eye contact. Black pumps. My string of pearls. The works.
“Poised,” they said, judges and audience members alike. Crisp, confident, assertive, polished. I knew when I was in control—when the audience was putty in my hands, when my voice permeated bones, locked the audience in a trance.
Some thought my speeches were memorized. That was insulting—they weren’t.
And then, of course, the male judges.
The sexism I railed against pushed me forward. I knew. I could see it in their eyes—especially if they were younger, college-aged.
I had long legs, wide eyes, was one of few women. I broke the monotonous streak of white, male extempers. My presence was memorable, part of my style, gave my analysis a free pass.
I’m being hard on myself—my substance was good, not great. The result of fourteen minutes of research—skimming articles, extracting and quickly memorizing minor details (name-dropping always impressed), scribbling feverishly on my yellow legal pad—and fourteen minutes of practice—pacing, pacing until I landed my intro. It was important to deliver the first line flawlessly. The rest would come naturally.
Sure, I usually had a compelling intro, strong thesis, three main points, a tie-in to my intro at the end. Full circle. I knew how to divide my time well, I could rely on my short-term memory, but I didn’t read enough. Not like the others. Those glued to The Economist or Foreign Affairs. Those who assembled their research files daily, not the night before. I just showed up and delivered, pearls in tow.
I certainly was no Tex. I know that now.
The sexism worked in reverse, too. College-aged female judges hated me.
It’s as if I posed a direct threat to these women. Or maybe that’s my ego talking.
Junior year fared better. I won 5th at State, qual’d for Nats, and won 5th in the nation in Impromptu Speaking. Impromptu is a consolation event for competitors who don’t advance in their original events, but that trophy is my most prized possession from those four years—two intertwined, silvery figurines, arms in the air, allegories of Victory.
I learned then the importance of humor. The winner of Impromptu finals made some trite joke about being so nervous he might pee himself. The audience roared. I, a dainty, pearl-clad, skirt-wearing female, couldn’t nail that kind of delivery. Cheap humor was tasteless, unfeminine. The sexism struck back.
So I had to be smarter—to develop and incorporate my own wit, to buff up my content. That’s when I got better, more substantive. Senior year, I won DX at St. Marks, a national-level tournament. I was finally a champion, to some degree.
I then won 3rd at State. But I wasn’t myself that round. My voice was shot. No more molten gold. I croaked.
Voiceless, vulnerable—at least I know I was rewarded for my substance.
I’ve since retired my pearls. They’re somewhere at home, buried in a drawer full of childhood trinkets and bad memories.
But I’ve kept my heels. Black, pointed power pumps. They uplifted me, literally and figuratively. They signaled my arrival, my movements, my exit.
Striking the floor, my heels ring of womanhood. The kind of woman who commands. Me.