By Wyatt Freeman

For more than 100 years, students from across the country have been competing in speech, drama and debate, and southern Oklahoma has enjoyed generations of enormous success.

Yet now it would seem those days are coming to an end.

Ardmore, Lone Grove, Marietta, Dickson and Plainview schools have had hundreds of state champions among them, and have sent many across the country to various national tournaments. However, there is concern the Ardmore area is a shadow of its former glory. Lone Grove, which previously had the most succesful team in the state, eliminated their program this year. In addition, Dickson and Plainview no longer have teams, and Ardmore chose not to compete during the past school year.

“Whenever a school feels the financial crunch, the first thing to go is always the fine arts,” says Anson Shuman, former Ardmore Middle School speech coach. “I used to take kids to Ohio, California, Tennessee and everywhere, and for a lot of them, it was the best time of their lives.”

Shuman says shortly after his retirement, Ardmore City Schools decided to discontinue the middle school program, a decision, he says, which diminished interest in the high school program.

For many students, the extracurricular activity, which combines public speaking, acting and reasoned debate, is a way for them to develop skills they say they wouldn’t be able to learn anywhere else.

“I learned things like resourcefulness, contextual thinking, body language and so much more,” said Billy Ellis, former Marietta student and current speech coach at Muldrow High School.

Ellis, a first-year teacher, is sending five students to the national tournament, an opportunity he says none of them would have if Marietta had cut its speech program when he was a student.

In this way, speech and debate offers students the opportunity to be part of a legacy that goes back generations. For some, this opportunity is the difference between life and death.

“I really came to understand the value of what I was teaching after one student told me it kept her from committing suicide,” Shuman recalls. “She had some learning disabilities and never really had any friends, but she wound up winning the novice national tournament that year, and eventually went on to graduate in the top 10 percent of her class. That really humbled me.”

Because speech and debate tournaments take place inside schools in small classrooms across the country, not many people know what the event is about. Modern speech and debate is nothing like what movies, such as “The Great Debaters,” portray it to be.

Some events combine aspects of acrobatics, and feature students using standard classroom chairs to perform flips and jumps. Other events give students only 30 minutes to research, write, memorize and perform an informative speech on a topic drawn from a hat. There are classic events such as debate, but there is certainly more to the program than that, and this apparent lack of understanding might be one of the causes for the lack of support.

“Community and faculty involvement is the key to a successful program,” says Jayne Lynch, former Dickson High School speech coach. “It isn’t like football where everyone can come to one place to sit and watch, and so it requires a level of commitment from the school to stay involved.”

It appears such commitment no longer exists for some area schools.

After being unable to find a steady replacement for its state champion coach Brian Gunter, Lone Grove canceled its program this year. Similarly, Dickson gave up the ghost in 2007, and Plainview hasn’t had a team since the early 2000s. None of these schools have any plans to bring back their programs.

Dickson officials say they do offer courses in stagecraft and an annual musical. Plainview also offers semi-annual musicals, and Lone Grove offers some speaking opportunities through FFA. Ardmore administrators, however, say they have no intention of abandoning their program, and have plans to bring in a new coach next year to breathe new life into the program.

“We have been involved in speech and debate for a long time, and I think it’s a tragedy that so many schools are doing away with it,” says Ardmore High School principal Kim Holland. “We have big plans for the future, and we don’t see any reason why that may not even include a new middle school program.”