Words That Changed the World competition soars
The fourth annual Words That Changed the World competition took place Feb. 5 in the CFA’s Hale Theater, and it soon became evident why the public speaking event is fast becoming an Upper School tradition.
Five seniors — Clare Hayes, Joey Brown, Xander McTeague, Cat Sheehan, and Lindsey Bennett — took to the stage one at a time to first explain the passages of import they’d chosen to perform and then, embodying the original speakers, make those passages come alive for their audience. The event ended with a standing ovation for all five speakers, but it was McTeague’s portrayal of Denzel Washington’s 2011 commencement address to the University of Pennsylvania which earned top honors.
“Do you have the guts to fail?” McTeague, as Washington, asked the Upper School assembly, exuding the relaxed confidence so synonymous with the Academy Award-winning actor, producer, and director. The senior then urged his classmates to “fall forward” as they chase their true passions because every failure is simply one step closer to success.
And the time to chase those dreams, he said, is now.
“You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse,” said McTeague.
Hayes, who faced the added challenge of going first, chose the heartfelt words of motivational speaker Marc Mero, a former amateur boxer and professional wrestler (ring name: Johnny B. Badd) whose mother stood by him throughout his battle with drug addiction but died before he could thank her for her unconditional love and support.
“You show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future,” said Hayes, as Mero, that Monday morning. Truly capturing the pain and regret of Mero, Hayes warned: “But if you surround yourself with people involved in drugs and alcohol and pills, it’s a dead end.”
Brown also chose a commencement address for her performance: a talk given by famed comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres to the Tulane University Class of 2009. The senior skillfully echoed both the humor and melancholy of DeGeneres as the New Orleans native recalled her career triumphs — DeGeneres was the first female comedian asked to sit next to Johnny Carson after her stand-up routine, high praise from the then “King of Late Night” — and her deepest fears, especially what would happen to her life and her career if the world found out she was gay.
“And I finally decided,” said Brown, as DeGeneres, “that I was living with so much shame, and so much fear, that I just couldn’t live that way anymore, and I decided to come out and make it creative.” In the spring of 1997, DeGeneres and the character she played on Ellen came out at roughly the same time.
Sheehan delivered an impassioned performance, choosing for her passage the 1988 “Why We Fight” speech of Vito Russo, a gay rights activist, film historian, and author who co-founded GLAAD, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group, in 1985. His remarks focused on the devastation caused by the 1980s AIDS crisis and the indifference of the general public, the mainstream media, and the federal government.
“So, if I’m dying from anything,” said Sheehan, as Russo, “I’m dying from homophobia. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from racism. If I'm dying from anything, it's from indifference and red tape, because these are the things that are preventing an end to this crisis.”
Bennett chose award-winning spoken word poet Rudy Francisco for her performance; specifically, the senior chose Francisco’s 2014 rendition of his poem “Complainers,” which emphasizes that “living is a privilege” despite its numerous obstacles, some big and some small. At one point, channeling the words of Francisco, Bennett admonishes those who make mountains out of molehills when it comes to life’s challenges.
“Tell me about the traffic,” says Bennett, as Francisco. “Tell me about your boss. Tell me about the job you’ve been trying to quit for the past four years. Tell me the morning is just a townhouse burning to the ground and the snooze button is a fire extinguisher. Tell me the alarm clock stole the keys to your smile, drove it into 7 a.m., and the crash totaled your happiness. Tell me! Tell me! Tell me, how blessed are we to have tragedies so small it (sic) can fit on the tips of our tongues?”
The competition actually saw two more fine performances from seniors as Ashley Johnson and Teddy Cohen ably served as the event’s emcees. Johnson even performed the Elton John classic “I’m Still Standing” as the votes, cast via smartphone, were being tabulated. Upper School science teacher Jim MacVarish P ‘11 then lowered the results from the balcony to the stage via a bucket tied to a rope.
All seniors take part in Words That Changed the World in their English classes, and the five finalists earn their spots by a vote of their classmates.
The Words That Changed the World competition represents the senior component of Thayer’s commitment to leadership communication and public speaking across all grade levels. The sequenced array of curricular opportunities, which begins in fifth grade, develops not only effective public presentation skills but highlights the art of storytelling, the value of connecting with multiple audiences, and the importance of articulating ideas in impactful ways.