In December 2004, my older sister, Saamia, was contacted by one of the Platteville Public Schools counselors at the time, Lora DiMeglio, who strongly encouraged that she enter a speech contest.
“There are some very nice people who run this competition,” she insisted. “I can give you their names — Eversoll and Woolf.”
This wasn’t the first time Mrs. DiMeglio had encouraged Saamia to partake in a speech contest — the Optimist Club Oratorical Contest turned out to be another one our entire family went through — so with some nudging, Saamia wrote up her eight- to 10-minute prepared oration on any aspect of the Constitution, as well as the three- to five-minute assigned topic speeches — each addressing a different amendment, article, or section of the Constitution, only one of the four of which would actually be selected at random and presented.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that one conversation was life-changing for all of the Masoom girls, to say the least. Mrs. DiMeglio’s insistence sparked a journey for our family that has lasted through three sisters, 11 years of competition, and more road trips throughout Wisconsin (and to Indianapolis) than we could ever have expected. It’s finally coming to an end this April, when my little sister, Saafia, gets on stage at nationals to close out her last year of eligibility.
The journey hasn’t been easy. There has been the euphoria of going to nationals four times as a family, and the heartbreak of losing even after we went onstage and gave it our all. More than anything, the hardest part hasn’t been actually waking up at the crack of dawn to drive through the snow to the opposite side of the state, or getting up onstage and delivering the memorized orations in front of 300 strangers, or even doing the latter with only five minutes’ notice of what our assigned topic would even be.
We have often struggled when it came to balancing our time. School and all the work and other extracurriculars that it entailed, speech, sleep, and occasional socialization has been a stressful and taxing lifestyle both physically and mentally — especially when the majority of our classmates beyond our friends neither knew nor cared that we even did all of this, though our friends aptly started referring to it as our “winter sport” — and all three of us definitely hit our breaking points at one point or another.
But through both the good times and the bad, the American Legion and Auxiliary has been instrumental in our development — not just as speakers, but as people. All three of us have always struggled with confidence and self-esteem issues. We didn’t know how to talk to adults that weren’t teachers or parents. The stage fright was too real — I was so scared of audiences that I even cried in the back throughout the entire competition the first time I did a speech contest. We have all worried people would never take us seriously because of our height (or lack thereof), in addition to, of course, our gender, our religion, and the color of our skin.
The societal barriers that come with the various bits and pieces of our identities are still present — but thanks to our participation in the oratorical contests, we now have the confidence to tackle them. We’ve learned how to talk the talk and walk the walk, and make well-timed hand gestures while doing so to boot. We’ve learned how to write, and how to do it under pressure. We’ve learned how to manage our time. We’ve learned what 10 minutes and five minutes feel like to the second. I dare say we’ve learned more about the Constitution than most members of Congress.
We have learned how to trust in ourselves, and in our support systems. We have learned how to keep going and succeed when others tell you that you can’t. We have learned to take criticism, accept and learn from our mistakes. We have learned what it feels like to take pride in something that you do, the taste of both hard-earned victory and bitter defeat — and with that, how to both lose and win graciously. We have learned to find strength out of weakness.
Further, even when we faced other obstacles in our lives, we knew we could count on the family we made with the American Legion. Car trouble minutes before competition, minor surgeries, deaths in the family, harassment we faced at school — you name it — the Oratorical and the people we met through it were there through it all.
And we couldn’t be more grateful.
As immigrants and the daughters of immigrants, it can be easy to feel like outsiders in a community. But from the very first local contest in January 2005, the American Legion and the Auxiliary, particularly in Grant County, have continuously opened their doors and their hearts to us. Particularly when the rest of our family lives so far from us, the little things — like Mr. Woolf’s annual call in December to give us the details for the post-level contest always kick-started the season — it means more than we can say that they have always made us feel at home.
Our emotions right now are bittersweet: While after this year none of the three of us will be in Platteville, this community will always be our home, and spreading the word about this phenomenal program and the people behind it is just one of the ways we hope to give back.
If you are a student or a parent, we urge you to consider participating in the American Legion Oratorical Contest next year. It changed our lives for the better — and we can promise whole-heartedly that it will change yours as well.
To the Eversolls, Woolfs, and the rest of the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary; the teachers and staff of the Platteville school district — and Bethany Fredericks in particular, who does not get nearly enough credit for being the only school district member who has traveled to any non-school-related — let alone almost every single — speech contest Saafia and I have ever taken part in, including those across state lines; every friend of ours who has ever had to run through our speeches a million times with us in study hall; The Platteville Journal, which has covered our progress throughout this contest for the past decade; Lora DiMeglio; and the Platteville community as a whole, on behalf of my entire family, and especially my sisters and myself, thank you, thank you, and thank you again, for your support throughout the years.