This afternoon, while trying to nap on a gorgeous spring break day, I received a text from a friend. He’d attached a story from The Atlantic. It’s title struck me. But the photo, featuring the former head coach of George Mason University and University of Texas forensics, struck me harder. “Oh, God,” I thought. “The Atlantic?!?!” The tiny world of college forensics, or competitive speaking and performance, was being ‘exposed’ because of a man I once worked with.
I know Peter Pober.
I knew Peter Pober.
I don’t know which one is more accurate. The most accurate way to describe it is to say that as a graduate student, I was once the Assistant Coach to Peter Pober’s Head Coach of the University of Texas Individual Events Team. In that position, Texas won the national championship at the American Forensic Association tournament in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1995. It was such a big deal, we became the first non-athletic team to have the Tower lit for us. Hook ’em horns! This was a huge achievement.
This morning when my friend, from my time at Texas, sent me the link to The Atlantic article, I felt like I was in a bit of a mental haze. Really? Peter has made it to The Atlantic? It’s not that his alleged crimes aren’t severe and, quite frankly, vile. It’s that this is about forensics, a nerdy, geeky extra-curricular activity that I loved. How could something so gross and “nasty,” as another friend described it, happen in this activity that required young people to memorize speeches, learn about world events, and edit short stories and poetry for public performance? And how could it happen within my own personal experience with the activity?
Caroline Kitchener‘s article “A #MeToo Nightmare in the World of Competitive Speech” is both familiar and alien to me. I can see Peter’s necktie case like it was yesterday. I can also see the wad of cash he pulled from his pants’ pocket. It was the largest collection of bills I had ever seen a person hold on their person, ever. Alongside the American Express card he used to pay for everything, that was the most worn of any credit card I’d ever seen, Peter was never without the means to pay for anything or anyone. I agree that he didn’t like to be disagreed with and I did that on more than one occasion. From looking down at an interp book to wondering why in the world I ever gave August Benassi ‘the one,’ I would speak up and defend myself. I had learned to do so with my own speech coaches. I remember the auditions of current members for next year’s team, as do I recall the team meeting before nationals where each student brought their planned outfits for Peter’s approval. I remember the team captain inspecting interp books for ‘proper form’ and the reminder she alone got about nail polish color for tournaments. Red was not allowed. While at UT, we did no dancing as Kitchener describes, nor did other teams look at us with awe or reverence like she claims was done to the GMU team. UT was at least a national champion. Surely, if teams were going to do such things it would have been to us Longhorns. GMU was never a national champion.*
I’m sure not being a national champion at GMU was something that didn’t settle well with Peter. While at UT, I heard a rumor that Peter was a passionate competitor. Impromptu speaking was his specialty and when he failed to make finals, yet again, his senior year, he sat on the ground and threw a temper tantrum. Rumor aside, I could believe it. And maybe that memory is the one that should make all of this not so unexpected.
Enough of Peter. Truly. Forensics is better than his contemptible behavior. I know it and a hell of a lot of people know it too.
As I continued to read the piece in The Atlantic, I kept reminding myself how lucky I was to have had the coaches I did. And my teammates. My coaches, trained in the performance of literature at Northwestern and Chapel Hill, knew quality literature. I competed in the days before competitors could write their own stuff and what a difference that made. My love of Margaret Atwood was solidified after performing her poetry and prose over two years time. Her story “Weight” would be the basis of my master’s thesis, the degree that got me my first full-time college teaching job. My love of literature grew more intense as I performed the poetry by a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and the prose a Pushcart Prize winner.
And my teammates? We were a mad-scrabble group of folks from Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. Some had done forensics at the high school level, but some, like me, had never heard of the activity until we got to campus. Those coaches, who taught us to discern nuanced, difficult literature from easy, fast-food-esque words on a page, helped us construct informative, persuasive, and rhetorical criticism speeches of detail and subtlety. (And as for After Dinner Speaking? Damn, we were funny. And that’s all I’ll say about that.)
We are all better for having done forensics. We’re all better for having gotten up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, to dress in our suits, and speak to near-empty classrooms all day long, for the hopeful reward of a trophy around 5 p.m. We are better for those coaches. For those teammates. We are the majority, NOT Peter Pober. Peter and coaches like him are the gross, vile minority, thank goodness. I refuse to let his actions be the ones that control the narrative of college forensics. Maybe times have changed to the point that I wouldn’t recognize the activity I once loved so much. It doesn’t have to stay changed. It can return to goodness. Hear, hear to it happening soon.
*Thanks to AFA top speaker, Margaret Langford, I was informed that GMU was a national team champion in 1979. Noted and clarified. Thank you!