Sometime during the 1968-69 academic year, elections were held at Olathe High School for Student Council President. 50 years later, I can’t remember why I decided to run for that post. I imagine it had more to do with popularity than better student government but it is possible I had loftier ambitions. Just the year before I’d successfully run for junior class vice president on the slogan, “A great prom, a better float, a vote for Kroth will get you both”. As a person who had lettered in three sports, competed in the “best legs” contest (not a winner, though I really did have a pretty good set of gams at the time), and of course was dating the obligatory cheerleader and first true love. I was running against Tom Kearney: Debate Nerd. I figured I was a shoo in.
I don’t believe there was any serious electioneering for the job but there was one hurdle, giving a speech to the student body. Feeling that my popularity would trump anything my opponent might say, I did not prepare for this opportunity.
I remember feeling panic – no, really, it was raw fear – sitting on the bleacher waiting to be called to speak. When called, I sauntered across the gym floor, and spent not more than 3-4 sentences telling the audience something to the effect of “Hey guys, I’m cool, we’ll have a great time next year, vote for me.” Muted clapping accompanied me as I walked back to my seat.
The one thing I remember more than anything that day was shame.
Tom gave a well reasoned, documented, and skillful speech. I relied on personality and relationships, qualities which in retrospect I think were shallow ponds regardless. He won, I suspect in a landslide, because even high school students – perhaps even more so than adults – can separate the grain from the chaff. I felt shame because I realized at that moment that I was a lightweight intellectually and that Tom and the folks he hung out with knew more in their little pinkies than I even knew existed.
That day began a transformational learning experience that changed my life.
I thought about this loss the entire summer and decided to change my approach to school entirely. The next year, my senior year, I competed in only one sport, became involved in theater – three plays, competed for the school on our speech team, mostly in the duo drama competition with my girlfriend Becky, and went out for the debate team. I also developed wonderful relationships with an almost completely different crowd of interesting and smart and caring people.
It was a 180 degree turn. Just that one year of debate experience developed my ability to think, take different sides of an issue, and forced me to deepen and broaden my knowledge of current affairs and the world. I cherish that experience to this day. I went on to major in theater arts, developing a love for theater that continues to this day.
I became a Toastmaster, and have been one for many years, developing a love of public speaking, that continues to this very day.
There have been other deeply transformational experiences in my life, but none quite so immediate and self-inflicted in front of a huge group of my peers. Fortunately, though one of the masks of life might be tragedy, the other is comedy or, in my case, an unmasking. That let my world see my superficiality and that let a bit of the genuine me emerge instead.
Olathe (Kansas) High School, has changed a bit since I attended 1968-1970: https://www.olatheschools.org/domain/2615