Nostalgic for Harvard: it’s not what you think

By Bryan Liu, Living Arts Co-Editor

I hate CC100: Foundations of Speech Communications—and that has nothing to do with my teacher or my classmates; it’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. I’m just too good at public speaking.

I was hired to judge the 49th Harvard National Forensics tournament: a Presidents Day weekend-long event in Cambridge where thousands of high school students from across the globe dress to the nines and pretend to solve America’s biggest problems—and the fact that I used to be one of those kids made it all the more ironic. How the turntables.

I spent every morning last weekend hauling my tired ass to Park Street—the T was filled to bursting with students in suits doing last-minute hair and make-up, finishing pre-round prep, and memorizing speeches. I sat down and did that thing where I held a book up to my face but only pretended to read it so I could judge the people around me and imagine that I was still a part of that world. I arrived on the scene at 8:00 a.m. and left at 11:00 p.m. I met up with my old coaches and other alumni at the Science Center. I had sex in the stacks. I parked a car in Harvard Yard. I pissed on John Harvard’s statue and rubbed his shoe in broad daylight—not in that order.

Not only does this tournament maximize the ratio of virgins per square foot of campus, Harvard is both one of the largest and the most prestigious invitational on the national circuit: it’s a big deal—everybody and their mother wants to compete there. I did.

For me, forensics was a four year marriage—and by “forensics,” I do mean competitive speech and debate for teenagers, not professional criminology. Nevertheless, I filed for divorce after my last season. I couldn’t take it anymore—the competition-inducing-pressure-cooker had burnt me out. The competition was making me toxic. TLDR: the vibes were bad. I won states and fucked off. 

I spent most weekends sharing a bed with three other boys in some hotel room adjacent to a college campus, or on some over-driven bus on the way to a random school to talk to strangers—I also shared that seat with three other boys. That was by choice. I was the fourth ass on the three seater. In both cases, it’s six in the morning, I’m wearing my best suit, and I’m fifteen-fucking-years-old. Chris, Aditya, Matt, and I would tetris our bodies on a queen-sized mattress to optimize the amount of bed between us and minimize the sexual tension—not that anything happened. 

I have a room at home filled with strangely proportioned bodies—mounted on trophies of course. It’s my room. I still look at them sometimes. 

As revered as they are, Harvard “trophies” resemble the most impractical dishware—finalists are awarded stainless-steel bowls mounted on wooden pedestals with a tiny plaque that reads, and I’m paraphrasing here, “congrats on your undisputed rhetorical dominance, now go conquer the rest of the world!” While semifinalists got stainless-steel platters engraved with a little message that just read “congrats!” And everyone else who participated got a high five, a pat on the back, and a kiss on the cheek. In a way, it’s like the Super Bowl for the most unathletic crowd of kids you’ve ever met. It was always a team tradition to eat ice cream out of our finalist’s bowls to celebrate, but it was also a team tradition to take pictures with the bowls on each other’s heads like funny hats. We were so silly.

I jest. The fact that I was back in my element last weekend was cathartic to say the least. As someone fresh out of competition, judging Harvard was like a paid trip down memory lane. Because I know what it’s like to be 17 and scared shitless. I know what it’s like to be sweating my ass off in the corner of the classroom, in the hot seat, waiting for the judge to call my speaker code so I can have the ten minute moment that I spent the last ten weeks working on. I know what it’s like to start shaking and stop shaking and keep a panic attack to myself because people like me aren’t supposed to get speech anxiety. I remember thinking, I know I’m the best in the room, but what if I’m not? What if I’m not as good as they think I am? And of course I’d do it all again next week. 

I’ve been the imposter, but I’ve also been the champion.

Retroactively, I realized something I should’ve known this whole time: it’s not about me. As a competitor, I was so entitled to being judged that my self-worth wasn’t mine. And I’m not saying forensics isn’t healthy—it is, I just took it too far. My departure from the team was a much needed detox. Now I can speak casually without cringing at myself. 

I got good results, I made cool friends that I still talk to, and I won awards for verbal shitposting. For the longest time, I was terrified that I peaked in high school. I owe so much of my personality and my work ethic to the forensics community—and that’s not embarrassing. 

Maybe I can still learn something from CC100: Foundations of Speech Communication. I don’t have to be the anti-hero.