Imagine the following scenario: you’re talking with a new classmate, a teacher, or one of your parents’ friends. You’re eagerly discussing your extracurriculars when you drop the word “forensics” into the conversation. All of a sudden, your conversation partner is intensely interested in everything you have to say.

“Seriously? That’s epic! So, do you like, chop up cadavers? Analyze fingerprints? Diffuse bombs?” You realize the case for confusion and quickly backtrack. “No, no! I do speech and debate,” You reply. Your conversation partner’s face falls, as they mutter, “Oh, yeah, that…that sounds cool too.” And thus another CSI: Miami fan feels cheated out of an actual conversation about explosions and firearms.

But people, hear me out.

Besides the sleek and scientific definition of forensics with which everyone is familiar, the ever-trusty gives a second definition: “the art or study of argumentation and formal debate.” Well, sort of, but not really.

“Forensics”, as related to the extracurricular activity, is a pretty big umbrella over a wide variety of events. Some of them do involve debate, but most do not. In the National Catholic Forensics League, “debate” events include Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, Student Congress, and Team Policy Debate. The “interpretation and speech” events include: Dramatic Performance, Duo Interpretation, Extemporaneous Speaking, Oral Interpretation, Oratorical Declamation, and Original Oratory. Whew! That’s a pretty exhaustive list.

My school’s forensics team, consisting of only ten members, has a very “though we be but little, we are fierce” mentality. We aren’t a large enough group to even field teams for the debate events, so we stick to interpretation and speech. Seven of us qualified for the National Catholic Forensic League’s Grand National Tournament after placing at the Virginia state level, representing the following events: Original Oratory, Oratorical Declamation, Dramatic Performance, and Duo Interpretation.

All you need to know about these very important sounding titles is: sometimes people write their own speeches and then present them (OO), sometimes they present speeches written by other people (Dec), sometimes they perform a piece of drama (DP), and sometimes they perform a piece of drama with a partner, without looking at or touching that partner (Duo).

When forensicators refer to their “pieces”, they’re talking about the script they’re going to perform. At nationals, pieces are performed in a small room in front of six other competitors and three judges. The judges rank the performances from one to six in order of their awesomeness and make comments on judges’ sheets. That’s what makes up a round, and on the first day of competition, there are four preliminary rounds before final rounds on the second day. Most pieces run about ten minutes. They must be memorized, must run the correct time length, and for the dramatic events (DI and Duo), must involve a certain amount of pantomiming. No props or costumes are allowed, so you are responsible for creating the scene around you. Done well, the pantomiming is actually incredible, but done badly, it’s physically painful to watch.

One more thing is crucial to understand about forensics before we continue: there is a reason Dramatic Performance is called dramatic. In my rounds for nationals alone, I saw pieces concerning a variety of dark and dreary topics, including incest, murder, suicide, a variety of STDs, unwanted pregnancy, miscarriage, insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. If you decide that you can stomach the less-than-cheery aspects of the dramatic events and choose to perform in them, it’s best to just make light of the darker plotlines you encounter with your teammates as follows:

“So, in my last round I had incest and insanity. You?

“I see that insanity and raise you a double murder/suicide.”

And it’s important to note that not every dramatic piece is a dramatic interpretation, though often it seems like the majority are. If you’re not into dramatic fare, your saving grace is going to be humorous interpretation. In my first round at nationals, I had a guy perform a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I greatly appreciated the comic relief. Thank you for that, random competitor. And thank you too, girl who performed as Junie B. Jones in my second round. You’re the best.

Now that you’re all briefed on what exactly forensics is and what some of the events entail, I can tell you about the 2013 National Catholic Forensic League’s Grand National Tournament, which took place over Memorial Day Weekend in Philadelphia–the highs, the lows, the mac and cheese, and the first time in my life I played hooky.

Forensics: The Real CSI: Miami (Except Not Really)

The bus ride up to Philly from southern Virginia was about seven hours. Seven long hours. Seven long, cold, rainy hours full of the following discourse between my bus buddy and me:

“Are we still in Virginia?”


*Two hours pass*

“So…are we still in Virginia?”


*Two hours pass*


“YES. We are STILL in Virginia.”

“Alright, alright…but are you absolutely positive we haven’t hit Maryland yet?”

“Don’t you have a final to study for?”

Upon arriving at the hotel where every team in the entire competition (we’re talking thousands of Harvard, Stanford, and Yale sweatshirt-clad Future Lawyers of America here) was staying, my team waited in line for approximately twelve years before our room registration was all sorted out. Beware of the hotel lobby: a lot of competition sizing-up happens here, so if you want to cut an intimidating figure, don’t be the girl in leggings and an oversized sweatshirt holding a hot pink unicorn pillow pet (i.e. me). After settling into our rooms and laying out our competition clothes for the next day, my team decided to do a bit of adventuring in the city.

If you’re ever lucky enough to compete in any kind of tournament in a big city, go explore it! If there was ever a time to channel your inner Bilbo Baggins and run down the street shouting “I’m going on an adventure!” THIS is that time. My team, after momentarily getting lost in the rain, ended up at a swanky tapas restaurant where I ate what was surely two thousand calories of lobster macaroni and cheese. Needless to say, every mac and cheese I have from this point on in my life will probably be a disappointment, but the point remains: don’t stay shut up in your hotel room when there is so much fun to be had in the city.

That bit of advice standing, do get to bed at a reasonable hour. We all know the temptations of a rousing two-in-the-morning round of truth or dare, but it really is in your best interest to resist. My roommates and I…we did not resist. And we paid for it dearly, as the first day of competition began with a wakeup call at the ungodly hour of four o’clock in the morning. After choking down as much of the in-room coffee as we could handle and squeezing into pencil skirts and pumps, my roommates and I shuffled into jam-packed elevators to catch the buses that would shuttle us over to the University of Pennsylvania campus for competition.

Upon our arrival to Houstan Hall, we found a place to sit among the chaotic crowd and ate as much breakfast as we could get our hands on. It was, without a doubt, the most stressful environment in which I have ever found myself. I mean it. The AP US History exam had nothing on that kind of anxious, hyped-up crowd of ambitious high schoolers. All the worse for bleary-eyed, fatigued competitors like myself, competition sizing-up happens here as well–which brings me to the subject of The Future Lawyers of America.

The Future Lawyers of America is my own term, coined for describing the most competitive of the competitive. The most elite of the elite. The most bloodthirsty of the bloodthirsty. To these kids, forensics isn’t an extracurricular. It’s a way of life. It’s a machine for paving their way to success…and a Supreme Court Chief Justiceship. Picture the number of times per week you’ve practiced your piece. Yeah, they’ve done it about fifty-seven times more. These kids tape their pieces to their shower walls to squeeze in extra practice. They record their performances and listen to them as they fall asleep. Their favorite movie is The Great Debaters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of them smile. In case you hadn’t noticed, I am terrified of these kids. Unluckily for us mere mortal competitors, The Future Lawyers of America also have a tendency to be extremely arrogant and judgmental. At tournaments, this means that in addition to making sure your performance is killer, you also have to dress to impress.

For gentlemen, the safest pick for tournament wear is a nice suit and tie. BAM. It’s that easy. For ladies, the dress code is a bit of a gray area. Dresses are technically allowed, but proceed with caution. Unless you want to have a real-life Elle Woods moment, I would stay away from the flashier color groups and shorter hemlines.

Really, if your objective is to blend in along with the Future Lawyers of America, your best bet is to suit up as well. And beware those Nine West pointy-toe pumps that you’ve been lusting after–they are not your friends (unless your idea of friendship includes blood running down your ankles by the end of the day). Even flats, if they’re new, can kill you by the end of competition. I learned this one the hard way at nationals. I practically crawled to fourth rounds. But don’t tell anyone.

In addition to fretting over how well you’ve practiced your piece and how sharply you’ve dressed, you also have to be mindful of how you’re going to get to your rounds in the first place. Rounds run in buildings all over campus, and you are responsible for showing up on time. For someone as directionally challenged as myself, this was nothing short of terrifying. I was handed a card with the times and locations of my rounds with a blurry, badly photocopied campus map and told by my coach “If you lose this, you are completely and totally screwed, and even though I love you, I won’t be able to help you.” Cue mild hyperventilation and a moderate amount of flailing.

I luckily made it to first rounds on time, and without a doubt, it was the most awkward performing environment I have ever experienced. Now, forensics is inherently strange because you are essentially performing for people who don’t want to see you perform. The people in that classroom, lecture hall, or spacious utility closet where you’re performing are at nationals because they’re ambitious. They’re there to place. They’re there to rip the first place titles from the cold, hopefully-not-dead hands of last year’s champions. So, naturally, you’re not going to be performing in front of smiling, encouraging faces. Don’t expect a comfortable performing environment, because what you’re going to get is six faces staring you down with the burning intensity of a thousand suns.

Second rounds went much the same way as first (with the notable exception that I got extraordinarily lost after turning the wrong corner and barely got to my building on time), and then it was time for lunch.

The scheduling for lunch is worked out by event. For the events on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Duo Interpretation had lunch after first rounds, while Dramatic Performance ate after second rounds. If you have a duo (or if other people from your school are competing in your event), you are in fabulous luck because you have a built-in lunch buddy. This is your chance to take goofy pictures together with every landmark or statue you can find and gossip about that one particularly gorgeous competitor in your second round who looked like a young Michael Fassbender.

If, however, you are an individual competitor, you can either attempt to befriend your fellow competitors or you can play the tourist. I opted for the latter. Lunch runs an hour and a half; so, after eating, I pulled out my camera and went for a walk and took pictures of all the beautiful, historic buildings on campus. Yes, it was more antisocial route to take, but for me, it was a welcome break from being around so many people.

Two rounds later, I was reunited with my two teammates in Duo and my coach. They were just as exhausted as I was, and luckily, just as eager to eat. After meeting up at the hotel with the rest of our team (who performed in Declamation and Original Oratory at a nearby high school), we got all dolled up and went exploring once more. However, given the fact that all our feet were covered in blisters and we were all completely beat, we got burgers at an Irish pub just few blocks away from our hotel. By the time we got back, results for the preliminary rounds had been posted online.

Well, might as well cut to the chase. None of us broke into Sunday’s final rounds. But honestly, in our exhaustion, most of us didn’t care. We watched Monty Python together in one of our hotel rooms instead of going to the “Postings Party” that NCFL was hosting in the hotel lobby, and had a great time.

Instead of hanging around the competition on Sunday, boring ourselves to tears while watching the octo-final, semi-final, quarter-final, and final rounds, we played hooky by exploring downtown Philly. We visited Independence Hall, took pictures in front of various statues, went to Reading Terminal Market for lunch, scoured some used book stands, and then got a head start on the bus ride home, during which we made a “Call Me Maybe” parody video. We had such a blast, I don’t think anyone regretted not making the final rounds.

One super wonderful thing about nationals is that, unlike a usual forensics tournament where you receive your scorecards and judges’ comments right after competition, you don’t get your results for months. Yep–you get to make a clean break with the tournament and don’t have a chance to wallow in despair over harsh or unfair critiques. You get to shrug it off and move on. After all, you can’t reuse your forensics piece next year.

All in all, I had a fantastic time at NCFL Nationals. Yeah, the actual performing was a total drag, but I got to meet Philadelphia for the first time and hang out with my favorite people in the world. And I got to all my rounds on time, which I consider a personal victory, one that I needed to win back after the NCFL Virginia state tournament, which involved me sprinting barefoot to my final qualifying round, showing up late, and awkwardly explaining my lateness to the judges while holding a massive chocolate Bundt cake. But that’s another story.

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the author

Elizabeth Watson (just call her Beth) is a senior at an itty-bitty private Catholic high school in Virginia. In addition to writing for The Prospect, she writes and performs sketch comedy with her improv troupe, rehearses like mad for school theatre productions, suits up for forensics competitions, and writes poetry for her school’s literary magazine. A brief rundown of Beth’s favorite people and things ever to exist in no particular order: hole-in-the-wall bookshops, sweaters, Jane Eyre, peppermint tea (in a Troy and Abed mug, of course), Broadway musicals, British period dramas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Hugh Jackman. Beth’s long-term goal in life to is to become Julie Andrews, but for now she’s focusing on surviving the final stretch of high school and getting into college–hopefully as an English major

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  1. Cassie on June 19, 2013

    So, I did Speech in high school and even though we weren’t part of the Catholic League (IHSA for state level and NFL for national level) and this was SPOT ON. I loved it. This was perfect.

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