Always an outspoken student in her social studies classes, Cobleskill-Richmondville High School junior Rachel Yorke has a “vocal attitude,” she says, when it comes to one of her favorite subjects: history.
“I’m the type of person who will speak up when it’s something I really care about,” she said.
Now, her ability to articulate her arguments in front of an audience is helping her earn scholarship money as part of the American Legion’s Oratorical Contest.
Yorke has moved through the contest’s first two rounds, including the Schoharie County competition, to qualify for New York State regionals, which will be held Feb. 1 in Lake George. From there, she will have the opportunity to continue to the state and national finals.
Yorke, who is considering majoring in psychology, could earn as much as $20,000 for college.
“We’re all very proud of Rachel and what she has been able to accomplish so far,” said Brett Barr, the C-R High School principal. “Speaking in front of people is not easy at any age, and Rachel is learning some valuable skills that will serve her well as her life progresses. We’ll be rooting for her!”
Under the contest rules, Yorke delivers her oration, a speech she wrote entitled “Free Speech, Hate Speech,” in eight to 10 minutes, without the aid of a microphone or note cards.
She’s judged on both the content of her speech and her stage presence, which she has honed by practicing as many as 20 hours a week, taking the time to coordinate her walking pattern and hand gestures with different paragraphs of her oration.
Her audience includes parents of other contestants, members of the American Legion and judges, who are scattered about the crowd in order to encourage the students to address everyone in attendance.
“During class, I don’t stress at all when I’m talking, but at the first contest, I definitely noticed my nerves were getting high,” she said. “You’re up there yourself with no microphone, no notes, no nothing.”
Still, she delivers a detailed speech that explains the history of the First Amendment and, citing specific Supreme Court cases, discusses whether the authors of the Constitution intended for freedom of speech to be absolute, or if they foresaw regulations necessary for hate speech.
“It’s a pretty timely topic, which is why I chose it,” Yorke said. “I tried to be very unbiased and just make it more of a factual speech.”
In her latest round of competition, Yorke also had to prepare three- to five-minute speeches about four other constitutional amendments. Then, the judges chose one of the four out of a hat. She was given five minutes to gather her thoughts, then had to deliver a speech on the selected amendment.
Hers was the 20th Amendment, which governs the transition of powers of both congressional representatives and the President.
“I chose to look back at Roosevelt’s presidency,” Yorke said. “He was the longest-serving President, in office for four terms, and talked about the transition of power and how it even has influence today.”
She credited her social studies teacher, Marc Weiss, for help with the substance of her speech, and Tina Wellman, an American Legion member, for watching her practice and offering feedback.
Yorke, who also is a captain of the girls’ soccer team as well as a cheerleader and Varsity Club member, encouraged her peers to consider trying the contest as well, both as a way of sharpening their public-speaking skills and competing for scholarship money.
“It’s definitely a lot of work,” she says, “but it has been so worth it.”