Most Norfolk Academy alumni consider their skill and confidence at speaking in front of large groups one of the lasting hallmarks of their education at the school.
They trace that ability to the school's organized program of public speaking, which begins with Boy and Girl of the Day in Lower School homerooms, progresses to the Ninth Grade Speech, and culminates in the Senior Speech.
That finale of the public speaking tradition, The Senior Speech, is an event that crystallizes the student's entire educational journey: Taking a few deep breaths (to steady the nerves), each senior shakes his faculty advisor's hand, strides to center stage, stands at the podium facing the entire student body and faculty, and delivers an approximately eight-minute persuasive speech, using language alone--no technology--to deliver key points of argumentation.
At least that's the way the tradition usually works, the way it did until the school moved to distance learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But when a great tradition meets a crisis, it doesn't capitulate--it gets reinvented.
So it was that a line-up of Senior Speakers, and a similar array of ninth graders, learned that they would be recorded in the annals of school history as Zoom pioneers, leading the way in relaunching the Speech Program on the videoconferencing platform that is widely used by universities and secondary schools across the country.
Dylan Pausch and Kacey Cooper led the way for the seniors on April 7. Pausch led off with a fierce denunciation of rattlesnake round-ups, a practice in several southern states (not Virginia) that results in the slaughter of rattlesnakes for the entertainment of spectators.
Pausch, who had practiced his speech extensively as he prepared to give it onstage, found that Zoom delivery was exciting, and it offered some benefits, hidden from the view of his audience. He gave his speech facing a window looking out toward the beach, which provided a sense of calm. And while he donned the required coat and tie, he declined the formality of khaki pants and dress shoes. Instead, he wore athletic shorts and went barefoot, he admitted. “I thought, 'Why not be comfortable?'"
Cooper's speech offered a paean to board games, as a way to improve cognition and build family interaction.
The audience for the speeches was a bit smaller than usual; due to limitations on audience size in the Zoom platform, the speeches are attended only by faculty and seniors, rather than the entire Upper School. All audience members, who must have their video turned on for academic classes, are instructed to turn off their video and audio for speeches to avoid distracting the speakers.
“Even though I couldn't see anyone, I was still nervous about doing it in front of them," Cooper said. “I knew they were all staring at me!" However, her strong belief in her topic helped her appear fully at ease; she said afterward that her family has been playing board games while shut in for the pandemic, including Scattergories and her personal favorite, Clue.
In an astonishing coincidence, Logan Pausch, Dylan's younger brother, was the inaugural speaker for the launch of the Ninth Grade Speech Program by Zoom on April 14. He gave his speech, “Updating Copyright Laws: Try to Copy This," facing the same vista as his brother, and he also eschewed socks and shoes.
He had some trouble with technology allowing him to enter the Zoom meeting, so “my heart rate was up" at the start. Overall, he felt that doing his speech via technology helped him perform better---even if the family cat, Mittens, threatened to interrupt with a loud meow.
In a video message to the Bulldog community, Headmaster Dennis Manning congratulated the first group of seniors to give their speeches, citing Pausch and Cooper, as well as Ty Alexander and Benjamin Summers. The re-launch of the “institution within the institution," as he called the Speech Program, offered “a sense of renewal."
The director of the Senior Speech Program is Dr. David Rezelman, who teaches history. The director of the Ninth Grade Speech Program is Mrs. Liz Staub, who teaches English.