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South City student finds her voice despite deep funding cuts
Speech coach Robert Hawkins and Kanani Cortez at the state championship tournament at Arcadia High School on April 30, 2017. Courtesy: Kanani Cortez

South San Francisco High School’s speech team can be remembered for its multiple state champions, or its students who moved on to compete at universities. But the program can be best remembered for its former coach, Robert Hawkins.

Hawkins singlehandedly built the program from the ground up. Having coached both state and national champions at the high school and collegiate level, he spent his 10 years as South City’s coach, building the team’s reputation and earning the respect of both the school and the district. Getting funding for school programs is always a challenge and advisors are found trying to curry the favor of school officials.

Competitive speech at the high school level can be described as interpreting and performing literature. Acting and articulation go hand in hand. When I joined I hadn’t considered myself an actor whatsoever, but I was able to tap into those skills, and Hawkins helped me do that.

In competition, students perform a speech about one central theme and present a message to their audience—whether it be social, political or inspirational. There are dramas, original prose and poetry, and interwoven pieces of literature. Whatever event the student chooses, it is their mission to interpret the characters and message to present a unifying theme. Whatever that theme may be, it’s most important to perform with passion for your topic. My speeches often felt like a form of advocacy for me, and a way to represent my people.

I had the opportunity to do this for all four years of my high school career, but it was not an easy feat. I performed speeches about the Latino work ethic, women being driven to violence, and the way the world treats garbage, technology, and various political topics. As a freshman, the team had about 30 people, the majority of them seniors. Practices were after school and during sixth period class. We concluded the season with two state finals, where I placed second.

We memorized our speeches, and polished our acting. Speech allowed me—and other students like me—to express my thoughts on issues that affected me. More often than not, the voice of young people is unheard, or not taken seriously. But in the speech community, our voices were respected.

Being on the speech team my freshman year is where I discovered my voice. I also began to see things more critically. While learning and discussing issues of race, gender and class, we also saw firsthand the lack of support we were receiving from the school. Funding was limited, so the year was spent selling chocolate bars to pay for tournament fees. This became pretty routine moving into my sophomore year as well.

By this time, the team had shrunk to only eight people due to our coach’s limited schedule. Despite that, we had another successful year with four of us qualifying to the state tournament, and one student winning a state championship.

No school backing, no problem

It was at the end of that season that my coach told me that he would be leaving his position at South City to pursue a full-time position in speech and debate at the collegiate level, but he also presented me with the opportunity to continue competing with him solo. We would be a two person team.

I agreed, and we kicked off my junior year in the fall as we always did. Instead of the usual team trip we arrived at tournaments “solo.” As the only student, I received the perks of being on the receiving end of his best ideas and practice time, but we struggled to meet. His new place of work was in the East Bay as the Director of Forensics at Diablo Valley Community College, and I was still residing in South City. He would often commute to South City right after work, or I would make the one-hour BART ride to Pleasant Hill.

The commute would cut into practice time, but it was worth it. Practice was held both indoors and outdoors, whenever and wherever we could meet. We attended tournament after tournament, competing against some of the best public and private schools in the state. We were determined to let our competitors know that despite us not having a formal team, they could not count South City out, and we succeeded in placing fifth in the State Championship.

Going into my final year, I qualified to the state tournament and we started a GoFundMe page to get us to the tournament in Southern California. We met our goal of raising $1,000 from teachers, parents, friends, and family. Watching my final competition being supported by my community is what drove me to succeed. In the two years we were competing independently, Hawkins coached me to two state championship tournaments and we concluded my high school speech career as a runner up for the state of California, falling short of the championship by only one point.

While Hawkins provided me with these competitive opportunities, he also served as a mentor. He shared his knowledge with me about navigating academia as a first generation student. Throughout my senior year he advised me on college applications, scholarships, and financial aid. Without his support I would not be attending college in the fall. Armed with a voice and invaluable skills, I have Hawkins and speech to thank for that.

Kanani Cortez is a recent graduate of South San Francisco High School, and the former editor-in-chief of the school’s student newspaper, The Warrior Post.

Story by: Kanani Cortez