Dressed smartly in complementary outfits, Missoula Big Sky High School seniors Kellen Mooney and Jordan Kubichek can take you through the breadth of world literature in less than 10 minutes.
They can do it in an over-the-top way that will make you laugh and leave you shaking your head. Was English class really this much fun?
The two are among the more than 500 students from Montana’s 14 Class AA schools competing Friday and Saturday at Billings Senior High School in the annual Billings Olympiad Forensics meet. Students are using oratory, debate and dramatic skills in more than a dozen events, including extemporaneous speaking, Lincoln-Douglas style debate, dramatic interpretation and original oratory.
In their duo event — which the pair practiced in a long hallway just before the competition began, drawing smiles from passers-by — Kubichek and Mooney hit many literary high points, including “The Epic of Gilgamesh” (“his temper was almost as awkward as his smell”), a rap-style sampler of Greek literature (the two jokingly called hubris “A Middle Eastern dish made with chickpeas”) and the French Revolution, “the only war the French ever won.”
“It’s helped us learn memorization and cooperation, playing nicely with others,” Kubichek said after the duo’s energetic run-through.
Billings high school teachers, who brought up to 40 entrants to the competition, said their students are learning skills that will take them far in their chosen careers.
Andrea Christen, who teaches drama and English and is the yearbook adviser at Skyview, said a friend who’d recently married — a geologist who along with Christen debated while attending Billings West High School — said the activity was the most important one she undertook during her high school career.
“She talks every day on the job, and she’s got to think fast,” Christen said. Those are skills that high school girls especially can find helpful, Christen said. “There’s the sense that I know what I’m talking about,” she said, to which her fellow teacher Kerry Gruizenga added, “and that I have something to say that matters.”
Thinking fast and speaking well were at a premium for most of the competitors Friday.
In one event, students receive a quotation, then are given five minutes to make up a little speech about it. Extemporaneous speakers have it a little easier — they’re given 30 minutes to pull together their thoughts on a current event before delivering their talk.
More than 90 judges volunteered 2,000 hours during the event, which continues Saturday with competitive segments at 8 and 10 a.m., noon and 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 p.m. The public is invited.
The event represents final preparations for the state forensics tournament, which will be held in two weeks in Kalispell.
“If it’s not working now,” Christen said of students’ efforts at the Olympiad, “they can tweak it, but they’ll be scrambling.”