The eighth-graders were mature and polished, and they even stood taller behind the lectern.
But at the end of the speech contest at St. Dominic Academy in Auburn, it was 10-year-old T.J. Folsom, a fifth-grader at Manchester Elementary School, who was named state champion.
T.J. recorded his speech on video at school last week for the national round of the speech contest organized by Modern Woodmen of America. Judging of videos by all the state winners will begin in July.
T.J.’s teacher, Rebecca Henry, attributed his success in the contest to his confidence and work ethic.
“The thing that surprised me was to see a fifth-grader win, but for it to be T.J. wasn’t surprising,” she said. “T.J.’s the kind of kid that when he decides he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.”
Henry assigned her class to write speeches for the contest as a way of meeting literacy standards for speaking and listening. The students had to write speeches of three to five minutes on the importance of healthy living, the topic chosen by Modern Woodmen.
For T.J., the topic brought to mind the book he was reading, Phil Jackson’s “Sacred Hoops,” in which Jackson describes the way he applied principles from Zen Buddhism and other spiritual systems while coaching the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in the 1990s.
“He talked a lot about the power of positive thinking and mental toughness on his players,” T.J. said. “I immediately thought: ‘positive attitude, positive thinking; that would be perfect.’”
In his speech, T.J. connects positive thinking to good mental health and relationships. He suggests limiting use of electronic devices and using that time to meditate instead.
If kids in school don’t know how to handle negative emotions, T.J. says, it can lead to fights or bullying.
“If everybody handles aggression by taking in a deep breath or meditating, these problems will go away slowly,” he says in the speech.
The contest started within Manchester Elementary, then advanced to regional and state levels. T.J. memorized his speech early — he was the only one at the regional level who had done so — and turned his attention to gestures and delivery to connect with the audience.
T.J. received some guidance from his father, Tim Folsom, who has to be able to hold the attention of an audience in his teaching job at Cony Junior High School in Augusta. His mother, Susan Folsom, is also a teacher, at Gardiner Area High School.
Tim Folsom said T.J. probably practiced his speech more than any other competitor in the state.
“He’s the hardest-working little boy I’ve known, and I’ve taught at school for 25 years,” Folsom said. “When he puts his mind to something, he just gives it 100 percent. When he does his best, the results are usually pretty good.”
Folsom said T.J. already has decided he wants to earn a master’s degree in business administration and become an investment banker, and he has a stock market account that he tracks every day.
T.J. is a little negative about his chances of winning the national speech contest, given the number of competitors, most of whom will be older; but he says meditating and writing this speech have affected his mind-set.
“I’ve learned to be more positive from my speech,” he said. “I kind of motivated myself, I guess. My favorite part is I get to deliver it and motivate others around me.”