If I Were to Write a Letter to the World…: SMAN 10 Malang WORDS Competition 2015

I had been late to a fairly important dinner the night before due to a flat tire on my motorbike, and I had spent most of the morning spending quality time with my kamar kecil (bathroom) because I wasn’t feeling my best (I’ll spare you the details).  Needless to say, I walked into my school’s WORDS Competition feeling less than positive about the whole thing.

I’ve had mixed feelings about WORDS from the beginning.  WORDS is a speech competition required of every ETA; we hold local competitions at our schools, and the winner goes to Jakarta with us to compete nationally. It’s an excellent opportunity for students to showcase their English skills, as well as a talent related to the topic of their speech; and the winner has the further opportunity to meet young people from all over Indonesia and ETAs from all over America, as well as tour their nation’s capital.  This is all wonderful, and I am glad my program is able to offer students this chance.

It is also, due to its nature as a competition, competitive.  I competed quite a bit when I was my students’ age through my local 4-H club, often for the opportunity to travel and meet others with similar interests, just as my WORDS participants are doing.  But after trading the title of participant for coach and later joining the ranks of those who dare to call themselves educators, I found myself striving to encourage teamwork and support of others, and disliking competition more and more, especially individual competition.  Here, whether due to Indonesian culture or merely the culture of my high-achieving school, I have found my school to be more competitive than the high school I graduated from, and much more so than the 4-H club that defined the person I was as a young adult.  The culture of competition is one of which I have come to recognize the positive aspects, but to which I still feel I’ll never properly belong.  So I admit I was slightly frustrated when I learned that the one project every ETA was to work on was a competition.

I should have known my students would change all of that.


Yes, the fact that this was a competition deterred more students from participating than I would have liked.  I chose to include both of my campuses in this competition, because I did not wish to add to the divide between the two campuses I had observed fairly early in my time here, and the policy determined at our mid-year conference was that both tenth and eleventh graders could participate.  So my tenth graders were intimidated by the eleventh graders, my first campus students were intimidated by my second campus students, and no one felt they had what it took to win.  I tried to encourage everyone as much as I could, to accentuate that it would be a good experience even if they did not win.  Some of them listened, and I began helping those few brave souls in any way I could.   


I was with some of them every step of the way, from the planning stages to practicing their speeches in the week leading up to the actual competition.  Others came to me only for parts of the process, often for editing their speech, often last minute.  I made myself as available as possible, scheduling meeting times twice a week on both campuses and letting student e-mail me their speeches right up until the night before the competition.  I won’t pretend it wasn’t more than a little stressful.  I felt seriously underqualified to assist my students, since public speaking has never been my strong suit, and just as I feel about many other aspects of being a teacher, there never seemed to be enough time to give my students everything they deserved.  But it was all worth it.

I really came to know those students who began working on their speech shortly after I announced the competition.  Some of them brought updated versions of their speech to me three or four times, asking for advice.  Some of them showed up to every WORDS meeting, sometimes just to practice their English.  Some of them were quiet students, whom I hadn’t thought would join a speech competition, and who amazed me with the passion with which they could speak, even if they trembled as their words rang about the room.  Some of them were students who had struggled to greet me in English when I first arrived, and whose English improved incredibly over the course of the month we had to prepare.  I never felt happier with my decision to come to Indonesia then after a WORDS meeting. I couldn’t have been more proud of these students, and how far they had come.


The theme of the 2015 WORDS competition was “Message in a Bottle,” and the students were asked to answer the question, “If you were to write a message to be received a world away, what would you say?”  As students planned their speeches, they came to me with questions like, “But who will get my message?” and “But what can I say that is important to anyone?” I think the conversations which arose from those questions were far more important than any speech-writing skills I tried to give my students.  These fifteen and sixteen-year-olds were grappling with the question of what we, across the world, have in common with one another, and what it means to be human. The 2015 WORDS competition will come and go, but that is a question which, I hope, they will continue to craft an answer to for rest of their lives.

The themes of their individual speeches varied considerably, with such a broad theme.  One student dared us all to chase our dreams, no matter how difficult that might seem, while a different student tried to find a way to define the meaning of home.  One talked about the importance of maintaining traditional cultures in a modern age, while another challenged Indonesia to stay true to its claims and work towards a brighter future.  Another begged us to always be honest. Family, friends, the effects of smoking… it was all there, and it was all amazing.

Their talents were as varied as their speeches.  They sang, they danced (a mix of modern and traditional that I’m persuaded only Indonesians can really pull off), they performed puppet theatre, and they recited poetry they had written themselves.  One boy even played the drums.  I have seen, again and again, how talented my students are, and I was thrilled that others were able to see just how talented they are as well.


 Whatever misgivings I had had about the WORDS competition, if they had not already been diluted by the privilege of working one-on-one with my students, were swept away in the joy of watching the fabulous performances given that morning.  Whatever kind of bad days I had had leading up to the competition, even if I wasn’t feeling one hundred percent that day, none of that mattered.  My kids were standing in front of their peers, their teachers, and five judges (two of whom had come all the way from Surabaya), to share their message with the world, and they were doing so brilliantly.  That is what mattered.


The winner of my competition was a girl I know as Afi, a high-achieving, some-what shy girl who is an avid Doctor Who fan.  She gave an amazing speech about a childhood friend with autism, who had taught her so much about kindness and friendship.  Her friend recently passed away, and I could not help but be blown away at her ability to speak of such a personal topic so soon after it happened. She had many in the audience, including myself, in tears by the end of her speech.  She should be coaching me in public speaking, not the other way around.


The morning of the competition, I was to give the opening speech for the event.  I might have been more nervous than most of my students—I wasn’t kidding when I said that public speaking isn’t really my thing—but it needed to be done.  I had taken a few notes, reminding myself to thank those on the academic team who had helped me plan the event, and to reserve special thanks for my co-teachers, who had supported me through the entire experience.  Armed with these notes and the short biographies my judges had sent me, I stood in front of some of the most important people in my life and hoped I didn’t babble too much.

But standing in front of my students, I knew exactly what I needed to say.  I gave the necessary thanks and introduced all of the judges, and then looked to my students, thanking them for their bravery and talent. “If I were to write a message to the world,” I told them, “It would be about you.”


And it’s true.  I’ve struggled to articulate it, again and again, but truly the most incredible part of my experience here isn’t the natural wonders or the foreign culture, but the young people with which I am privileged to work.  That is my message to the world, and I will keep on saying it, as loud as I can, for all the world to hear.