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Senior Speeches are one of the school's most hallowed traditions, the culmination of a program in public speaking that begins in first grade with Boy and Girl of the Day.

Yet the delivery of the speeches this year, amid a pandemic, unfolded with dramatic differences, compared with any year from the inception of the program in the early 1950s. Each speaker still stepped up to the gleaming wood podium, embossed with the school seal, at the center of the Johnson Theater, after a prayer and formal introduction by their faculty advisor.

Yet, instead of facing a packed auditorium of Upper School students and faculty, seniors faced a video camera and microphone set-up, mounted on a mobile cart, which beamed the speech into classrooms, where students watched on projector screens. Seniors who were in distance learning when their speech date arrived Zoomed in from home, dressed in appropriately formal attire. 

With all of these shifts, the sense of formality and seriousness of purpose remained the same, as each speaker accomplished the important milestone. “I am extremely proud of the job our senior speakers and faculty advisors have done this year, especially given the additional challenges posed by COVID-19," said Dr. David Rezelman, Director of the Senior Speech Program and Upper School History Teacher. “Public speaking pushes many people, perhaps even most, out of their comfort zones, but despite everything our students rose to the occasion." 

Speeches concluded on April 13, and finals were held on Wednesday, April 21. Following longstanding tradition, faculty grade speeches throughout the year, but the finalists are evaluated by a panel of three external judges, typically including at least one former winner of the Class of  1952 award, which is bestowed at Graduation upon the top Senior Speaker.

This year's Senior Speech Finalists were introduced by Leo Kamer '21, who had placed fourth in the rankings. The finalists (in speaking order):

  • Ella Deans with a speech entitled, “ 'Happy Wife, Happy Life': the Benefits of Mandating Paternity Leave." Speech Advisor: Warren Warsaw, World Languages Department Chair and Upper School French Teacher.
  • Reed Miller with a speech entitled, “Striking Down Agricultural Gag Laws." Speech Advisor: Matthew Robertson, Media Specialist for Batten Library.
  • Maddie Brooks with a speech entitled “Implementing Registered Dietitian Nutritionists in Grocery Stores." Speech Advisor: Brad Harlan, Associate Director of College Counseling.

The following students were Speakers of Distinction, based on their speech grades. They were announced at the opening of the program:

  • Blake Brown
  • Erin Clayton
  • Olivia Danielson
  • Ella Davis
  • Caitlin Johnson
  • Sidney Jordan
  • Leo Kamer
  • Christy Luecke
  • Anaiya Roberts
  • Braeden Shepheard
  • Elizabeth Taddeo
  • Franklin Wetmore
  • Matthew Wetmore

In his closing remarks, Headmaster Dennis Manning noted that the Senior Speech Program is a distinctive feature of the school's educational program; not only are the speakers challenged by the process of preparing and delivering a speech, but the audience also is stretched intellectually by the spectrum of topics covered throughout the year. In addition, he observed that alumni consistently remember their Senior Speeches as a significant milestone in their journeys through Norfolk Academy.

Judges for this year's competition were Mary Annunziata '09 and Josh Diamonstein '05, both of whom won the Class of 1952 Award; Annunziata currently works as an interdisciplinary writer and curator, based in New York, and Diamonstein is a military analyst based in Washington. The third judge was Jay Rainey, a former Norfolk Academy faculty member and Assistant Headmaster, who currently serves as Head of School at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MICDS).

Read more about Norfolk Academy's Public Speaking Program.

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