Things We Hold On To

This picture was taken in Austin with the first students I ever took to UIL State speech competition - (Second from left, Brenda Phillips in extemp, Jill Starr in prose, and some kid who qualified in Number Sense and had to ride with us to Austin. Bless his heart).

Brenda was one of the first students I ever took to a speech tournament.

She tried some interpretive events, but Brenda had too many opinions of her own to limit herself to someone else’s script.  She was far more gifted at speaking her mind.

When I discovered that gift in her, I conned – excuse me – I persuaded her to enter extemporaneous speaking.

Extemp was my favorite event to coach.  I liked prepared events, too, but extemp was a new challenge every time and the fact that it had limited preparation time, well, that just made it that much more exciting.

Students competing in extemp drew topics from national and international current events and were given thirty minutes to prepare a seven minute speech.  They were judged on content and style.  The more sources they cited in the speech, the better, unless they sounded like Encyclopedia Britannica.

Extemp exposed kids to the world.

Extemp developed kids’ ability to think on their feet.

And to express themselves.

Back in those days, every speech team had what we called “extemp files,” usually Rubbermaid tubs filled with magazine and newspaper articles on current events.  Students had to keep clipping articles and filing them to keep the files up to date.

At one point we had nine of those tubs filled to the brim with articles on everything imaginable. 

Because you didn’t want to get stuck with a topic that you couldn’t find an article about in the files. 

Since Brenda was the first student to compete in extemp, she set up the filing system.  I bought some plastic file boxes, subscribed to some periodicals, and she started filling them up.

She became quite protective of those files.

One day she brought a pair of orange-handled scissors to school and asked me to keep them in my desk drawer so she could use them to clip articles.

Brenda came back to see me when she was home on Christmas break from her freshman year at the University of Texas, right before she was killed.  I thought about giving her those scissors then, but I’m glad I didn’t. 

They’ve been in a lot of desk drawers since that time. 

Another high school.  Two law firms.  The state capitol.  A university.

Now they’re in a drawer in my kitchen with the rest of the stuff I use a lot.

And every time I use them I think of Brenda.

The cast of Wylie High's 1988 production of Noel Coward's Blythe Spirit for UIL One Act Play competition. That's me on the left, and my students Michelle, Marilyn,Brenda, Jill, Angela, Cassie, Michael, and Brandon. What a sweet bunch - it's hard to believe they're all in their early 40s! Glad I stayed 27. We miss you, Brenda.




4 Comments Add yours

  1. Alyssa says:

    What a great story. I didn’t know Brenda and I didn’t know what happened to her either. Glad you commented on the rest of the story. And I’m glad you kept the scissors. What a great bunch of people you have lined up there in the last photo!

  2. Laura says:

    People live on, in the objects they used, memories of them, stories we tell about them …

    Recent totemic objects I’ve used: Mom’s flour sifter, Pop-Pop’s imitation down vest, Nannaw’s Currier & Ives plate …

    How did she die?

    1. sallygary says:

      Brenda was abducted from the convenience store where she was working and was murdered. Her mom went on to fight for victims’ rights to confront offenders and was honored in 1996 by then Governor George Bush for her help in establishing the Victim/Offender Mediation Dialogue program within the Texas prison system. Here’s a link about Brenda’s mom’s service:

  3. Wow…that really took me back. Thank you!

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