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One by one, the students who will soon compete at the state forensics championship take the stage in the small theater at Memorial High School. Their timing is flawless, their gestures are fluid, their skill level is professional. Some of the performances, which last four to 12 minutes, make audience members laugh; some make them cry; a surprising number do both.
Dressed in black, deadly serious and totally in control, forensics coach Tom Hardin, an English teacher at Memorial, announces the program, then guards the door. As at any legitimate theater, stragglers are barred from entering during each act.
Sophomore Ben Mau performs a devastating roast of Oprah Winfrey.
"Oprah saved my life," he testifies. "If not for her, I would not know about all the random crap that nobody cares about."
Sophomore Naman Siad, the daughter of Somali immigrants, likens her head scarf to the traditional attire of nuns, and asks why Americans see the one as a sign of modesty and the other as an emblem of all we don't like - or don't understand - about Islam.
With a vicious leer, senior Tricia Ulrich performs a "Moments in History" that will, in a few days, win her a state title. Ulrich traces the origin of the Dracula myth to two medieval monsters - the bloodthirsty Vlad Dracula and the more obscure Hungarian Elizabeth Bathory, who left a body count numbering roughly 600 young girls. As Ulrich puts it, she "spent countless hours in the dungeon whipping her victims' backs and watching gleefully as their flesh ripped open."
This is forensics, a form of competitive speech and dramatics. As defined by the Wisconsin Forensics Coaches Association, it's "the art of formal public speaking and presentation."
A forensics tournament includes a series of events, each bound by specific rules. The category "Moments in History," for example, demands that students write and perform a six-minute talk on one aspect of a given period in history.
Closing the evening's performances is a snippet of the play "Top of 16," featuring a fiery Chelsea Burris and a sheepish Spencer O'Rourke (both seniors). He has strayed beyond the bonds of monogamy, and she is neither reticent nor pleased.
"Did you think I would not find out?" Burris snarls, then delivers a series of too-close-for-comfort stage slaps. As she merrily exacts her revenge, we finally glimpse the true relationship between the two and understand why she keeps failing to pull her punches.
The performances, played out over two evenings in April, give parents and friends a chance to see their kids in action. But they're also designed to fuel Memorial's forensic tradition - and the students' competitive juices. The front of the program lists the 10 tournaments that have taken place so far in 2009 - all of them won by Memorial. The performers stand before a table overflowing with 2009 trophies and the five state title trophies the team has earned during Hardin's nine years at the school.
On the following weekend, Memorial adds a sixth state title at the finals, held at Ripon College, where the National Forensics League began in 1925. And during the three years of Hardin's tenure that Memorial did not come out on top, it finished second twice and third once.
"Memorial's success is a tribute to Tom Hardin," says Bonni Knight, past president of the Wisconsin Forensic Coaches Association. "Obviously, success breeds success, and he's created a success monster. People come back to coach; he's surrounded himself with really successful coaches and good staff."
Hardin's style of motivating kids has nothing to do with the feel-good, "everybody is special" drivel. Winning matters. He knows it, and makes sure they do too.
To the 125 or so kids in Memorial's Drama, Debate and Forensics Club, Tom Hardin is an unusual hybrid of coach, poet and father figure. He's dedicated, competitive and unnervingly straightforward.
Hardin, 55, is clearly not in it for the money. The forensics gig earns him the same pay as an assistant basketball coach ($1,800 a year). He's also paid the same amount again for supervising Memorial's annual two-plays-and-a-musical schedule.
"Tom spends an extraordinary amount of hours here," says Memorial principal Bruce Dahmen. "If it's 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., Tom is here, working with the kids, bringing in staff from the community to work with students. He has a real dedication to the program."
On most Saturdays between January and mid-April, Hardin and his fellow adult coaches travel with the forensics team to tournaments in such cities as Appleton, Eau Claire and Sheboygan.
After arriving at a motel, the members spend the evening fine-tuning their performances until the 11 p.m. bed check. After a 6 a.m. wakeup, the groggy group plunders the breakfast room and hustles by bus to the tournament site at a high school, where it is invariably the first - and usually the largest - team to arrive.
While serving as a judge at tournaments, I've grown to appreciate Hardin's warm-up tradition. At 7:30, the entire team - girls in heels, boys in suits, both sexes leaning toward basic black - start with some awkward jumping jacks, and then plunge into tongue-twisters, a "fun with speech code" moment where one slipup can turn a stream of gibberish into a flood of profanity: "I'm a fig plucker's son. I am a mother pheasant plucker, I am the most pleasant mother pheasant plucker...."
Following this exercise, several contestants perform excerpts from their events, and the energy starts to rev up. Before everybody leaves, Hardin issues his standard injunction: "You will not badmouth your competition."
Hardin is a stickler for decorum; I saw him send a slovenly team member home from an event to change clothes. Given Hardin's stern reproach, I'd bet this was a one-time infraction.
As the day wears on, Hardin lurks in the background, but when the scores are announced, he stands at the front, hoping to confirm that his team is on its way to crushing the competition.
It's hard for me to imagine the early years of forensics under Hardin at Memorial, because the esprit de corps he's established is now such a big part of the program. These days, freshmen and sophomores who approach the club see vivacious, outgoing kids who are accustomed to working hard and getting results.
"It's the culture, that's the thing Tom has inspired, a culture of hard work and success," says Tim Scheffler, a Madison attorney who competed in forensics at Appleton East and now coaches for debate and forensics at Memorial. "Most coaches and school administrations treat forensics as a passing hobby, versus a real, legitimate, beneficial exercise for the kids. They treat it like a basketball coach would treat a 3-on-3 intramural game, while Hardin is playing for the state championship."
In a club that attracts the drama kids, you'd expect a focus on talent and creativity, but Hardin dwells on dedication, perseverance and work. And nobody works as hard as Hardin. At the Appleton competition in February, for example, he did not reach the motel until past midnight, having lingered in Madison to finish a rehearsal of Memorial's production of The Sound of Music.
As a judge, I've seen the fruits of this work ethic. Other schools have some great competitors, but I never saw second-rate from Memorial. The Memorial kids I've watched have all been sparklers. They make eye contact and behave with poise and conviction while producing an interesting and usually surprising take on their material.
At the post-competition awards ceremony, an unusual number of Memorial kids take first place. But before each award ceremony, Hardin enjoins his team: "You will be respectful." Memorial students are first on their feet to applaud competitors who earn top honors.
Tom Hardin's obsession with performance has deep roots. He began acting in grade school in Peoria, Ill., and tried out for outdoor community theater in the summer.
"You had to have a big voice, and I got cast a great deal," he says. "I would get the old man roles. I could do a good old man, had a big voice."
After high school, Hardin spent three years in the Navy. "I enjoyed the service, loved being in the Navy, going to different places I was probably never going to see - on the taxpayer's dime."
Hardin entered UW-Madison and joined the forensics team. But because he had to pay his own way, he alternated between a semester on campus and a semester of work. "I worked as a baker, an oil rigger in Oklahoma, a security guard," he says, "but I always had my eye on the prize, knew I would end up teaching drama and forensics."
In 1985, Hardin earned a B.A. in communications arts (and later a master's in teaching at UW-Whitewater). He now has a triple teaching certificate in drama, speech and English. Hardin got married, had three children, got divorced, returned to Peoria to teach, and eventually came to Memorial in 1999. His daughter Allison, 25, who graduated Carleton College, has returned to judge forensics; Melanie, 22, and Michael, 20, are both MATC students.
Key to transmitting Hardin's lifetime of experience in speaking and performing are his one-on-one coaching sessions.
At 7:30 on a recent evening, Hardin was halfway through a crowded coaching schedule. Samantha Harper, a junior, was working on her "Moments in History" piece about Anne Boleyn, the tragic wife of King Henry VIII. Harper's text compares Anne to a diamond: beautiful, flawless and tough, even as she falls from favor for failing to produce a male heir. Hardin watches, then comments.
"It's wonderful, but your gestures are too stiff, almost robot-ish," he says. "Relax your fingers, do the gestures slower. You are conversational, very poised, have a great face and great voice, but come up slower with your fingers out, leave it up for while, talk with your hands."
Picking up on Harper's metaphor, he adds, "That's the only flaw."
But anyone who's seen Hardin load 50 kids onto a bus for an overnight trip knows there's a tough side to him too, a bit of the drill sergeant. One morning he asked a boy to read a poem, found he was unprepared, and dug into the feckless fellow: "You didn't do it? You said you were going to do it!"
Anna-Lisa Dahlgren, who teaches middle school in Marshall and competed for Memorial until she graduated in 2004, confesses to being "a little afraid of him when we first met. But the more I got to know him, the more I began to realize that he cares about each student in a unique way."
Hardin is able, she says, to "recognize how different everyone is, and make them successful by building on their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses. He's able to combine education, competition and camaraderie in a way that makes the activity memorable. The kinds of skills I learned in forensics make people successful communicators for the rest of their lives."
Watching Memorial's forensics team compete, you feel sorry for the other schools it's up against. Teams like Appleton, Sheboygan and Brookfield have seen their winning traditions knocked aside by Hardin's "success monster."
But relief may be in sight; Hardin says he's determined to retire from forensics and dramatics at the end of next year.
There is no heir apparent, and fellow coach Scheffler, who also plans to bow out after playing massive roles in both debate and forensics, sees a good chance that Memorial will fade away as a forensics powerhouse "unless they make a serious commitment to finding someone to coach forensics, like they would do to find a football or basketball coach."
Scheffler, who is Memorial's lead debate coach, has his own share of success, Hardin says. Debate has three types of events, and Memorial is sending the state's largest team to the national competition in one of them. Hardin will be taking 13 contestants to the forensics nationals. The combined competition occurs June 14-20 in Birmingham, Ala.
The decision on a replacement rests with the principal, but Dahmen, like some others at Memorial, is not convinced Hardin is ready to quit coaching.
"He's told me that a couple of other times, and I'm not willing to listen to that right now," says Dahmen. "There are others who could step into the job and be involved, but...Tom's experience and dedication would be very hard to replace."
Clearly, Hardin knows something about kids: In our sports-driven culture, drama, debate and forensics is one of Memorial's largest three clubs, and his classroom is a place where kids choose to hang out during study halls.
"I can be spoken to," reflects Hardin, "and I think the students and people I work with understand, 'He is that way, he's loud, but he is passionate about what he does.' They see it's really good, things are done well. My students feed off that success. They can tell this a good thing to do, there is passion there, and if they pick up on that passion, they will be successful."
And everybody in the club knows that Hardin is the hardest worker of all, says Cori Muir, mother of senior Andrew. (Andrew is the forensics team's president and a winner, in a duo event with my son Josh, in the 2008 state tournament.)
"I think he succeeded because he doesn't expect any less of the kids than he does from himself," says Muir. "He doesn't fake it. He's so totally upfront with his praise or his disappointment. You know where he is coming from, every single second you interact with him. He doesn't give up, just keeps working, working, working, and it makes for an amazing product every time. I think he wants the absolute best for the kids, and they learn to want the best for themselves."
Speech, of course, is communication, and being able to communicate is fundamental to success, on the job and off. Plenty of kids join drama, debate and forensics for the chance to occupy center stage, but others have more personal motives.
"I have some kids, it touches your heart," says Hardin. "They say, 'I want to do this because I want to improve my speaking skills. I know I'm not a very good speaker.'" Hardin gestures toward his heart, peers directly at me and pauses for effect. "How great is that?"
The play's the thing
Memorial Theater Company will perform To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday in Theatre 300 at James Madison Memorial High School, May 15, 16, 21, 22 at 7:30 pm and May 23 at 2 and 7:30 pm. For tickets, call 608-347-9761.