Randolph, Mass. — Marcus Gadsden kept his phone close by him on the last weekend of June.
Only a week before his birthday, he expected plenty of well wishes from his friends and family. However, it was a message from an unknown number that he kept his eye out for.
Two weeks removed from submitting his recorded performance to the virtual National Speech and Debate Tournament, Marcus expected an alert to arrive from a National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) judge at any second.
When Marcus saw a text message from an unfamiliar area code light up his phone, he held his breath. Then, after what felt like an eternity to plug in his phone password, he exhaled at the sight of a congratulatory message welcoming him into the next round of the national competition.
Within an hour, another message followed. Then another, and another.
Fifteen texts later, Marcus found himself in the final round of the NSDA's national tournament. By the time his day had ended, Marcus had finished fourth in the nation for prose, making him the third CM student in the last six years to finish in the final round of the category at the national tournament.
“It’s everybody’s dream to make the final stage of NSDA’s,” Marcus said.
“When you come in as a freshman, you watch the best of the best compete on the final stage and you dream of making it there yourself.”
Originally scheduled to take place in Albuquerque, the NSDA national tournament took on a drastically different appearance this June. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NSDA converted its national tournament to an online platform. Using this virtual platform, all non-debate contestants needed to record themselves performing their respective pieces and submit their recordings to a panel of judges. After two weeks of evaluation, the judges message each contestant at the end of June to let them know if they advance to a different round of the tournament.
Fellow CM students Will Cummings, Luke Esposito, Aidan Healy, and Ben Kimball all joined Marcus at the tournament. The participation of the five students filled speech and debate head coach, Br. Anthony Cavet, with a great sense of pride.
“[The team] has such a strong sense of community,” Br. Cavet said.
“Everybody was helping each other throughout the year and they just keep passing down that sense of community."
The online platform at this year’s competition added a whole new layer of difficulty to the NSDA’s biggest stage. It posed a challenge for Marcus in particular, who claims the energy from a live audience tends to elevate his performance. According to Marcus, the crowd’s reaction to a joke or an emotional line helps him gauge the audience’s mood, which then allows him to adjust his tone and inflection accordingly.
“You want to be able to talk to the crowd,” Marcus said.
“Not having a crowd to talk to definitely seemed like a pretty big challenge.”
Marcus knew he needed to re-think his approach to the competition. So he decided to adjust his psyche.
“There’s that common phrase of ‘pretend that everyone in the crowd is naked,’” Marcus said.
“Well, for me, I just pretended that a crowd existed.”
The piece Marcus chose, Marlon James’ Driving Scared, added another layer of intrigue to his performance. The piece shares the perspective of a Black man who sees his father - sick with Alzheimer's - arrested by a white police officer on the side of the road. As a student of color, Marcus had performed the piece before during the school year. However, given the current racial unrest in America, the piece took on a much heavier sense of meaning for Marcus.
Upon rehearsing his piece, Marcus even used an old saying from Br. Cavet to steady his mind. According to Marcus, Br. Cavet constantly tells him and his teammates to let, “the words be [their] coach.”
For Marcus, this meant interpreting the words on his script in the most meaningful way possible.
“That’s what made the difference in my speech,” said Marcus.
“As a Black male, I was able to create a message about a part of my life that is genuine and is a challenge that I experience regularly.”
For Br. Cavet, Marcus’ performance reminded him of what makes the recent graduate such a special performer.
“Presence, cooperation, personality, and deep sense for caring about others,” said Br. Cavet.
“That’s what makes [Marcus] so ridiculously good.”