When I joined speech and debate my sophomore year of high school, I had no idea just how much I would grow. Anyone who knows me will tell you I can’t shut up, and I’m quite okay with that. My friends kept telling me I would be good at storytelling—an event that made storybooks come to life. I remember thinking that storytelling was the stupidest thing in the world and that I would never do it. And then I found myself acting like a squirrel for the sake of a trophy.

You see, acting like a squirrel didn’t really come naturally for me and neither did public speaking. Sure, I had a knack for it, but I was no superstar in the speech world. My beloved speech coach quite literally yelled at me until I could do my speeches correctly. I remember getting into the car one day after school and telling my mom that I just couldn’t do it anymore; I was tired of not being able to read more than three words out loud before being told I was “saying it wrong.”  Thankfully, I resisted the voices in my head telling me, “You can’t do this,” and I persevered. I went to my first tournament, performed with confidence, and did extremely well. This ignited a fire in me that couldn’t be put out, no matter how many obstacles I had to face.

I remember waking up on Saturday mornings, regretting signing up for a full day of public speaking. Nerves were my worst enemy, but they were also the best catalyst for my success. The speeches I had practiced for weeks on end tumbled through my brain like clothes in a dryer. One word on top of the other, jumbling themselves up into heaps and repeating the cycle, until I arrived at each tournament.

I remember showing up to unfamiliar high schools, much larger than my own, and feeling like I was about to burst with excitement and fear. My friends and I would claim a table in the spacious cafeteria of whatever school we were at, and then we would start practicing for the long day of competition ahead. Walls quickly became my favorite audience, my coaches became confidants and mentors, and my peers became idols. I couldn’t believe that I had finally found “my thing.” I felt like a natural at public speaking, and I guess I assumed every year after my first year of competing would be that easy. But it wasn’t.

Competition got harder the longer I stayed on the team. My junior year of high school was full of struggles, including trying to do my best in speech and debate. My classes got harder, friendships got weird, and COVID-19 took the world by storm. I didn’t particularly enjoy my speeches that year either, but I kept pushing forward. I never got closure that speech season because COVID sent us all home. Life was a story that continued to write itself, but that year’s season was a fragment all alone in the sea of words surrounding it.

Then came my senior year of competition. I was so excited to get back to my craft. I wrote an incredible speech about foster care and adoption, hoping to tug on heartstrings and win some trophies. I went into my final season of speech and debate with the hope of doing well. I wanted to knock ’em dead! But then I kept getting knocked down!

Weekend after weekend, I found myself falling into second or third place. Now, don’t get me wrong, this was still quite an accomplishment. However, I didn’t understand. I had put in the work. I had put in hours of preparation with my coaches, hours of practicing, and hours of revising the speech. What wasn’t clicking? I kept pushing forward, tweaking the speech here and there. I tried new things. I added singing to the speech, and I tried to make my presentation with confidence, and I still couldn’t find the missing piece of the puzzle.

We finally reached one of the last tournaments of the season. A top award secured competitors a spot at the annual National Speech & Debate Tournament. I went into this particular day of competition knowing that I had the potential, but I lacked the confidence. I did my best, just like I would at any other generic tournament, but I still didn’t think I would make it to nationals. The end of the day rolled around, and the team coaches called us competitors in for award announcements. Adrenaline took over my body, causing my heart to pound in a quick but steady rhythm. One of my speech coaches held us in suspense, watching us squirm under the pressure and anxiety of the situation. “And in first place . . . Clark Moyer!”

I simply couldn’t believe my ears. I finally made it. This wasn’t just a first-place trophy at a generic tournament. NO. This was the national qualifier tournament.

Looking back, I’m glad I went through all the struggle I went through to get there. Do I still get frustrated about the setbacks and hang-ups? Sure. But sophomore year Clark would be so proud of how far she has come. Imagine if I had quit cultivating my God-given talents just because I couldn’t handle the heat from my coach, whose goal was to make me a better speaker. Imagine if I had quit because I never got first place in my speaking category. I fought for what I wanted, and by God’s grace, I got it. Struggles don’t define you, dear friend. They only make you better and get you to where God wants you to be.