Barack Obama is known as a great speaker.

He makes public speaking look easy, no?

I don’t love being busy, so when I make a decision to add to my work load, it’s a sure sign there’s something about the work that I love. Such is the case with forensics. Not the CSI forensics so popular in cop shows and court procedurals, but the study of debate and the spoken word.

How many of those moments have you had in your life where you can look back and clearly see your life’s journey branching in two different directions? You had a choice, you made it, and if you had made a different choice, it could have dramatically changed the course of your life. Way back when I was a freshman in high school, I had one of those moments.

I was severely socially disadvantaged in high school. I came from a graduating class of three eighth graders, and then went to a class of 100 in a high school an hour from where I lived. The experience was terrifying in many ways, but one of the most terrifying moments (other than the locker room) came when I had to give my first speech in front of class. It was an oral book report on The Yearling, and I was so nervous that I pulled an all-nighter and memorized every single word of the speech. When it came time to deliver the speech, I was visibly shaking throughout. I’d put in the preparation so I mostly pulled it off, but I still remember several spots in the report where I stumbled. (I remember saying, “A movement moved under his feet,” which isn’t the best wording to talk about a boy nearly stepping on a fawn). Anyway, I got through it and got a B, and then had approximately one year before I had to take an actual speech class as a sophomore. Further speech crises were temporarily averted.

So I was pretty shocked when that same lit teacher, who was also the forensics coach, asked me to be on the team. I couldn’t figure out what the hell she saw in me that she thought I would be good at any kind of speaking because I know she saw me shaking during my book report. But she presented me with a choice—I could either face my fear, or I could try to keep avoiding it. Thanks to her nudge, I joined the team.

The competitive part of forensics involves different categories such as prose, poetry, persuasive speaking, solo humorous acting and news reporting—basically any kind of spoken word. Choosing to be in these competitions, while still utterly nerve-wracking, soon built up my confidence. When it came time to finally be in that sophomore speech class I had been dreading, it turned out I loved it, and I aced the class.

I couldn’t fathom at the time how valuable the experience of being on the forensics team would be for me. Going to college, I had confidence in my speaking ability. I ended up double-majoring in communications and literature. While I always liked writing, it became clear to me that writing and speaking often went hand in hand. By the time I graduated college, I was skilled enough that they asked me to come back and teach as an adjunct professor.

So, way back when I was 15, if I hadn’t chosen to bite the bullet and join the forensics team at the urging of my teacher, who knows what I would be doing today?

Now, I coach forensics at my middle school, and while I don’t always love the “extra” work, I still love the experience. Like my high school lit teacher, I encourage individual kids to try to face their fears and join the team knowing that it will bring them confidence in high school, college, and their life beyond.

And because forensics also involves the written word, I get my writerly rocks off at the same time. I love sharing the things I read with students who are looking for an appropriate piece.

Don’t hold it against me, but back in my religious high school, my topics for persuasive speeches included boycotting NYPD Blue because of the bad language and nudity, and advocating abstinence over safe sex. Today, I make up for those misinformed transgressions by encouraging students to challenge themselves with their presentations. I encourage them to skip Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” (everyone does it) and instead read something from Clive Barker. Rather than reading Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address,” (everyone does it), try surprising your audience by reading the speech Drake gave when he got his high school diploma. I get excited about the opportunity to do something nonstandard and off the beaten path. Under my guidance, my team tends to favor the off-beat, weird, and scary instead of the traditional.

Forensics is just an extension of what I love, and maybe that’s what my lit teacher saw in high school—my passion for words. I’m constantly amazed by the courage of kids, being 12 or 13 and speaking out about transgender issues through poetry, or giving a speech on their immigration experience and learning English. They have a lot more courage than I had at that age, and I love to see their passion.

Passion is contagious, and it can’t be contained. It needs to be shared and experienced. That’s why we read romance, isn’t it? And that’s why I do forensics.