Speech six in the competent communicator manual (the traditional set of speeches people give first) is called ‘vocal variety.’ The purpose is to focus on your voice – adding pauses, good language, volume changes, pace of speaking changes, things like that. I thought accents would be a good way to force myself in to accomplishing some of those goals … and when I think of accents I think of when I went to Georgia Boys State.
You’ll have to make up your own accents when you read this.
Georgia Boys State
My family had moved from New York to Georgia over winter break my freshman year, and I was sitting in my first class, English, at my new Georgia high school. I was feeling overwhelmed by the move, but I had just learned some good news – at my new high school they had just finished reading The Old Man and the Sea, and I had already read that.
The teacher asked some question and called on a girl, she began to answer.
WHALE?! There’s a WHALE in the book? When was there a whale!?
She continued after a pause, “ya’ll know … he was like … trying to catch a fish or somethin’?”
That’s when three thoughts hit me – 1, ohhh, she said well; 2, she clearly didn’t read the book; 3, I love a good accent.
Fast forward two years and the summer after my junior year of highschool I was treated to a buffet of Georgia accents at Georgia Boys State. I’d like to share a few stories, and attempt a few accents from Boys State – but first, who here is familiar with Boys State or Girls State?
Boys State and Girls State are weeklong camps put on by the American Legion. It’s a sort of mock political event. Kids after their junior year of high school are selected, a few from each high school in the state, and then you attend this camp where you are split up into cities, and counties. You learn about state politics because you have to elect someone to each major position – city councilors, positions at county levels, and up.
Every day you meet people from your city, and county. People give speeches in the hopes of winning elections.
The camp was about as opposite as possible for things I was interested in. Politics? Nope. Public speaking? Nope.
But, what the camp lacked for me, it more than made up for with amazing accents from all over the state, and oddball experiences.
We begin on night one. The camp was run on a tight schedule, and we had hit lights out for the day. My roommate and I were tucked in to bed.
“Night James,” I said to my roommate, “night Brad,” he said back. A few moments of silence go by before James says, quietly, “hey Brad?” I respond, “yeah James?” And then a question everyone wants to hear from someone they have just met and will be rooming with, “how do you feel about your relationship with Jesus?”
This time I paused before answering, I wanted to make sure this question got the due attention it deserved. “Oh, pretty good, thanks for asking.”
Then I laid absolutely still, not sleeping a wink, doing my best impression of how I think my breathing sounds when I’m asleep. James didn’t pipe up again, I guess he was just dipping his toes into the pools of evangelism.
The people in charge of Boys State did a good job of mixing people up – I knew other people there from Savannah, but we were scattered across different cities. Each city had a good mix of folks from all over. And I spent the most time with people from my city.
I had come to Georgia from New York with an ignorant but well-formed set of assumptions and stereotypes. Southerners, in my mind, spoke slowly and were a bit dumber than northerners. Thankfully, I learned time and again how wrong I was to assume the south lacked smart folks.
One guy who embodied that reminded me most of Adam Sandler’s character from The Waterboy, and I remember him distinctly talking about the SATs. “Well my mama said that, if I got over a 1400 on my SATs she’d get me a truck. So, I got a 1450.”
….WHAT. That’s not how it works! You aren’t motivated by a TRUCK to do well in school. You can’t be smart AND one of those guys who sneaks a guns and ammo, or truck magazine into class. (Yes, some of my classmates really did that.)
The slow accents though, sometimes that was true. That was demonstrated by another guy in my city “who’s daddy is a pea-nut farmer. And he’d just sorta … stroll through a sentence real casual … and ya’ll can come along and pay attention if ya’ll want, but ya’ll don’t have to neither.” It was like mind numbing poetry. He could make one sentence sound like a story.
Last, but certainly not least, is David Ballard.
All the kids from my county had met in a big hall to elect the district attorney, sheriff, and other positions. These were coveted positions.
One of the guys in that room was David Ballard. David was not terribly attractive, he looked like a shy nerdy fella, he was definitely not the best speaker, but he was persistent. He was very persistent.
The first position came up and a number of people got up, gave speeches about why they should be elected. David got up and gave his speech, “Hi, my name is David Ballard, and I would like to be your district attorney.” David didn’t win.
The next position came up and again a small set of county citizens got up, gave speeches, and even David participated. “Hi, my name is David Ballard, and I’d like to be your sheriff.” He didn’t win.
Again, and again, and again, David got up and ran. I loved every minute of David’s speeches. It was like watching an injured Olympian limping across the finish line an hour after the other athletes.
His winning speech began as such, “Hi, as you all know, I am David Ballard.” There was no shame, no hesitation, he tried, and tried, and eventually succeeded. It was beautiful, and inspiring, and because I am a jerk, pretty darn comical to me.
I was not excited to head to Boys State. And when I left, I was happy to to be back home and surrounded by my friends. But, despite my best efforts to sit back and be a smart aleck and poke holes in everything around me – it was truly educational.
Accents are beautiful, people are great, and there are life lessons hidden everywhere if you let them hit you.