For the second year in a row, Jacob McHugh, 18, won a state oratory contest, which landed him a spot to deliver speeches about the U.S. Constitution in a recent national competition.
His prepared speech, “Robbing the Constitution,” wasn’t a yawn. It began with an anecdote about a 19-year-old in Daytona Beach who once tried to rob a convenience store by pointing his hand, like a gun, at the clerk. Jacob, a senior at Ardrey Kell High, didn’t make it to the final round the first weekend of April, but he said the experience was valuable.
“I’m really interested in politics and government, so it was a great way to combine my love of speaking with my love of government,” he said.
His impetus for exploring public speaking, politics and theater was, funnily enough, money and girls. But not the way you think.
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He began seeking out public speaking competitions a couple of years ago in hopes of winning money for college. He got $2,500 his sophomore year for winning the state level of the Optimist International Oratorical Contest, where he spoke about the need for empathy in young people after reflecting on his own middle school bullying experiences.
And with his two years of success in the American Legion’s Constitution competition, he’s garnered $7,000. But that money will now be a bonus: Jacob is committed to attending the University of Alabama on a full ride for speech and debate.
Jacob’s interest in public speaking stemmed from his love for theater. Last year, he won the state Shakespeare Competition and went to New York City for the national recitation competition. He first became interested in the Shakespeare contest – and as a result, theater – as a sixth-grader because a friend convinced him they could meet girls there. His friend was right – they were the only two boys – but neither of them made it past the school audition.
“My whole public-speaking political career, all of it, started because I was trying to meet girls,” he said, laughing.
Jacob said he’s found his niche, both in theater and public speaking. He’s a captain of Ardrey Kell’s speech and debate team and has been instrumental in building up the school’s program, three-time state champions.
The most rewarding part of being on the team, Jacob said, is seeing freshmen come in who don’t know the rules of debate and watching them learn, grow and go on to win tournaments.
His speech and debate teacher and coach, Krista Casey, said Jacob has been an excellent leader for other students. “He’s been very effective at helping to grow the younger students,” she said. “That’s been a delight, both to watch him grow and watch him share his knowledge.”
The hardest part of public speaking? “Keeping it under the time limit,” Jacob said.
There’s a big societal fear of public speaking, he said, but he hopes more young people try it because it has a lot of social and critical-thinking benefits.
“A lot of people think you’re either born knowing how to speak or you’re not, and the truth is, most of the kids on our team are terrible, myself included, freshman year,” Jacob said. “If you work on it enough, no matter how introverted or shy you are, eventually you will be a great public speaker.”