SMHS’ Wilson Found His Voice in Speech Event

Three years ago, as an incoming freshman at San Marino High School, Noah Wilson had something to say when he walked into the classroom of speech and debate coach Matthew Slimp. Wilson was taking the class, he said, so he could learn to speak better.
It was the delivery of those words that hit some snags.
“He could not make it through a sentence,” Slimp says today.
Wilson had a pronounced stutter, something that has been with him since age 5. He could hang up on a single syllable for five, six, seven beats, then move on to the next and experience much the same effect.
Why in the world would he put himself through the potential torture and embarrassment of competitive speech and debate?
Just as he said, if laboriously: He wanted to learn to speak better.
The enterprise has proven to be Wilson’s salvation. Next month in Salt Lake City, he will be one of 11 SMHS students competing in the National Speech and Debate Tournament. His peers also elected him one of the team captains next year when he’s a senior.
“I’m definitely a much more confident speaker,” Wilson said recently during a break from class, his speech smoothly modulated — with only a few wobbles. “I communicate better. I can definitely speak more and convey my ideas more clearly.”
Emotion can surface in Slimp’s voice when he talks about this success story. “He means a lot to me,” he said of Wilson. “He showed a great deal of courage in attempting to conquer that. The fact that he loves doing this and the fact that it’s been good for him, it’s awesome.”
Slimp’s first move that freshman year was to get this student set up with a speech pathologist employed by the school district. Then he did some research. He learned that often a stutterer can speak more smoothly when doing an accent, or acting out a role. He decided to guide Wilson into a speech event called dramatic interpretation, in which a participant pre-learns a 10-minute excerpt from a book or play and performs it in character.
It is considered one of the more elite events in speech and debate. Think of it as competitive acting.
Wilson’s father, Moses — himself a former stutterer who insisted that his son enroll in speech and debate as a freshman — was hopeful that dramatic interpretation would be a good fit.
“When Noah acts, he becomes a completely different person,” Moses said. “For some strange reason, he doesn’t stutter.”
This had been evident at the young man’s previous school, Pasadena Christian. After doing well with a minor role in a school play as a 7th-grader, he performed the lead in “The King and I” the following year. He was flawless, apparently, reducing some of the school’s teachers to tears. The Wilsons then moved to San Marino precisely so their children could attend a high school the caliber of SMHS.
Noah Wilson, who also recently competed with 15 classmates in the California High School Speech Association State Tournament in Santa Clara, performs monologues from Eric Boghosian’s 2008 book “Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead,” part rant, part comedy, part scathing insight on social strata.
In it, he alternately plays two characters: a down-and-out homeless person and a prim businessman. Asked to deliver an excerpt, Wilson looked around the SMHS quad and said, “Well, everyone here has heard me screaming.” And he launched into a guttural growl:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, homeboys and homeless, and welcome to the soul train! We’ll be makin’ all local stops, including fear, insanity, incarceration and death.”
He turned to his interviewer and smiled. “No stutter at all,” he said.
And now the businessman, for which his delivery was higher-pitched and dripping with indignation:
“You know, I’m at that point in my life where I don’t want to spend money on stupid stuff anymore. I don’t even want to leave my house. I had to go to the city last week to visit a client. It was torture. You been down there lately? They’re all sitting there on the streets, begging. They’ve got children and they’re begging. But, you know, I feel so sorry for these poor people, because it’s not their fault.”
Again, flawlessly delivered.
The polish Wilson has gained in dramatic interpretation, and the success he has enjoyed in competition, has helped reinforce the obvious strides he has made in public speaking and even everyday conversation.
“Stuttering is not something you can cure; it’s more about managing it,” said SMHS speech pathologist Niko Seino, who works with Wilson weekly. She added that “he’s so highly motivated, I think that’s been the most helpful.”
The two work on different fluency techniques. Wilson is aware that he tends to stutter on vowel sounds, so sometimes he subtly puts a consonant before a word beginning with a vowel: “and” becomes “hand.” Or he employs what Seino calls “early onset,” starting a word in a low register, softly, slowly, elongating the vowel: “aaand.”
Wilson says he gets into trouble if he speaks in his everyday voice. In such moments, he taps into some of the techniques he has learned in speech competition, speaking in a deeper voice, slowing down, raising the volume, or lowering it. “Seventeen years of speaking has sort of created a default voice that must constantly be shifted,” he said. “You have to consciously keep changing something.”
Another trick, he said, is being aware of some of his trouble words, and swapping them for synonyms when he comes up on them in conversation.
Speech and debate has not only improved his speaking skills, it has heightened his interest in politics, and he finds himself gravitating toward that field as he thinks about college.
“I like the systems of it,” he said, “figuring out how social systems mesh together and how people interact, almost like a more scientific approach … ”
Suddenly, for the first time in the interview, the stutter was back, as he hung up at three junctures of that short sentence. But Wilson’s awareness of it was keen.
“… You see here, I’m slipping back to the default, so I have to make some sort of change to it, which I think right now will be to speak faster,” he said, flawlessly. “You just have to change on the fly. Pitch, volume, speed.”
In the nationals next month, the judges can expect to get the full array of those variations, delivered by a young man who has experienced an exponential gain in confidence in his three years of high school.
They’re likely to find he has a lot to say.

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