Teacher, forensics coach
Considered one of the country's top forensics coaches, Tommie Lindsey has taught countless public high school students to achieve success as public speakers and to use these skills to help build satisfying college and professional careers. While debate teams have traditionally attracted students from elite schools, Lindsey has made his inner-city public school team—with a diverse student membership and limited budget—a force to reckon with. As of 2004, his students had won six consecutive National Forensics League School of Excellence awards and four California High School Speech Association championships. In 2004 Lindsey received a prestigious MacArthur fellowship in recognition of creativity in his field.
Inspired by Caring Teacher
One of nine children of an ironworker and a homemaker, Lindsey grew up in Oakland, California, and was raised by his grandmother after his parents died. From her he learned about the importance of family bonds, a value which he considers central to his decision to enter the teaching profession. Indeed, he was particularly inspired by the generosity of his sixth grade teacher who, noticing his torn shirt and jeans, bought him new clothes. "That made me want to be a teacher," he told Parade writer Tom Seligson. "I wanted to care for other people the way she cared for me."
Lindsey's first experience with public speaking occurred when he was in ninth grade and was asked to participate in graduation events for his class. Not only did his English teacher doubt his ability to prepare and deliver a successful speech; his topic, he told NPR interviewer Dick Gordon on an episode of The Connection, was a difficult one: "investing in learning to cultivate the intellect." He didn't know where to start at first, but his landlord, Josephine Dukes, helped him to break the topic down into smaller parts and organize his thoughts. He received a standing ovation for his performance, and the experience gave him the confidence to continue in the field. "I knew that I was destined to do something with speech," Lindsey told Bay Area Parent writer Lisa Lewis.
Though he lacked formal training in public speaking, Lindsey had grown up listening to the powerful rhetoric of Baptist ministers and civil rights leaders. Church sermons, he told Gordon, helped him to develop a feeling for the power of words. The stirring speeches of such leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were also central influences.
Lindsey went on to compete in Rotary and Lion's Club contests during high school, and then enrolled at the University of San Francisco. He earned a degree in Communications Arts and Social Science in 1973, becoming the first African-American valedictorian at the university.
Drew Diverse Students to Debate
Lindsey has taught in the California public school system since 1975, when he took a job at the Alameda County Court Schools, setting up speech contests for students who had been incarcerated for serious crimes. "These kids were murderers," he said in Bay Area Parent, "and I was only about nine years older than them." Seeing the tragic waste of potential among his students in juvenile detention, he determined that he would find a way to reach kids before they turned to crime. In 1980 he moved on to El Rancho Verde High School, an alternative school, and in 1988 began teaching at James Logan High School in Union City.
When Lindsey arrived at Logan, there was no program in forensics, which comprises a range of public speaking activities including debate, extemporary speaking, and dramatic interpretation. So he created one. To draw students in, he told Gordon, he focused on "crossover" students like athletes, who did not fit the image of the typical "preppy" debater. In some cases, Lindsey said, he would challenge athletes by suggesting that public speaking was something at which they could not succeed. Their competitiveness made them want to prove their ability to him. Lindsey also told prospective team members that public speaking is an invaluable skill, and that experience on the forensics team would improve their chances of getting into college. In its first year, the Logan forensics program had 13 students. By 2004, enrollment was about 200, making it the largest program in the country.
Lindsey is proud of the diversity on his team. Though forensics is usually associated with elite students, his program appeals to students of all abilities, from those in honors and advanced placement classes to those with special needs. These differences, he told Gordon, are actually a good thing for the program, because "it's great for honors or AP kids to know that they have to work with others" while it is also beneficial for less advanced students to know that their teammates will help them. The program also reflects the ethnic diversity of the school, comprised of African-American, Asian, Filipino, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Pacific Islander students. "They all help each other," Lindsey told Tom Seligson in Parade. "They find refuge here. I've tried to create an environment where it's safe for them to stand up and speak in public."
Indeed, Lindsey has emphasized how important it is for his students to honor their particular backgrounds. As he commented to Gordon, he never assigns passages for dramatic interpretation that perpetuate negative stereotypes. He encourages his students to bring their own unique perspectives to their public speaking projects; they have won championships with pieces on such topics as racism and street life. "People are amazed" by the success of his students, he told television host Oprah Winfrey, "because these kinds of kids aren't supposed to be in forensics. [But] I expect them to be champions and to conduct themselves that way, and they respond."
Lindsey's results have been impressive. While only about 38 percent of Logan High's graduating class typically attend college, the acceptance rate among forensics team members is 90 percent. Much of this success has been attributed to Lindsey's careful mentoring, both in and outside of the classroom. He requires every team member to take a forensics class (he teaches five of these each school year), and also encourages them to attend the six-week, full-day summer forensics academy he offers as a sort of "boot camp" to help disadvantaged students catch up to competitive levels. During the regular school year he makes his classroom available for students who want a place to do homework. He has helped students navigate the college application process and apply for financial aid. In one case, he arranged for an aspiring architecture student to get a summer internship at an architecture firm in nearby San Francisco. Lindsey has also bought suits for needy students so that they could be properly dressed for competitions. According to a Bay State Parent article, students "note that Lindsey is always willing to take the extra step, whether it's sitting down one-on-one to find out what's going on, or offering a kid a ride home when the team is returning from a tournament because he know the student doesn't have transportation."
At a Glance...
Born in 1951 in Oakland, California; divorced; children: Erica and Terence. Education: University of San Francisco, BA, 1973, BS and secondary teaching certificate, 1976.
Career: Alameda County Court Schools, California, teacher, 1975-80; El Rancho Verde High School, Moreno Valley, CA, teacher, 1980-88; James Logan High School, Union City, CA, teacher and forensics coach, 1988–.
Memberships: KEY Coach Society, National Forensics League.
Awards: National Forensics League School of Excellence Award, 1999 and 2000; National Forensics Coach of the Year, 2000; Use Your Life Award, Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network, 2003; MacArthur Fellowship, 2004.
Addresses: Office— c/o James Logan High School, 1800 H. St., Union City, CA 94587.
Such dedication, Lindsey has noted, can be exhausting. He often works from about 8 o'clock in the morning to 10:30 or later at night. With a limited budget for his program, he must take on secretarial tasks on top of his already heavy load of teaching, coaching, and school bureaucratic work. Dealing with his students' personal issues also consumes significant time, as does fundraising—a constant necessity for a program whose budget is constantly at risk of cuts. The demands of his job, Lindsey told Gordon, frequently kept him away from his family; his wife, from whom he was recently divorced, was often left to deal alone with the day-today challenges of raising their children, Erika and Terence.
Yet Lindsey's devotion to his program has also reaped invaluable rewards. Many of his students consider him a father figure, and remain in touch with him after graduation. One former student who phoned in to Gordon's program explained that "we never wanted to disappoint Mr. Lindsey" and that forensics is truly "the love of his life." Lindsey's students, many of whom have attended top colleges and universities, have achieved success in a wide range of fields, including business, medicine, law, and education. Whatever they choose to pursue, Lindsey commented to Seligson, "I want them to go back and be a voice in their communities."
Lindsey has recently received national recognition for his professional achievements. He received the National Forensics League School of Excellence Award in 1999 and in 2000; also in 2000, he was also named National Forensics Coach of the Year. In 2003 he received a Use Your Life Award from Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network. In 2004 he was granted a prestigious MacArthur fellowship: he was the only high school teacher among 23 recipients that year. Noting that Lindsey's students surmount many obstacles—including poverty, broken homes, and the stresses of inner city environments—to achieve success in a field dominated by elite schools, the MacArthur Foundation cited Lindsey's devotion and example. "Through his tireless efforts to support, inspire, and lead his students," the Foundation noted in a press release, "Lindsey serves as a role model...for all who seek to shape the future of young people."
Bay Area Parent, January, 2005.
Parade, February 20, 2005, p. 13.
People Weekly, December 20, 2004, p. 130.
San Jose Mercury News, September 28, 2004.
"Accidental Hero, Room 408: Meet Tommie Lindsey," Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/accidentalhero/Tommie/ (February 4, 2005).
"Tommie Lindsey," The MacArthur Fellows Program, www.macfdn.org (February 4, 2005).
"Use Your Life Awards," Oprah, www.oprah.com (February 28, 2005).
Accidental Hero, Room 408, television documentary, PBS, 2002.
"Interview with Tommie Lindsey," The Connection, National Public Radio, December 30, 2004, available online at www.theconnection.org (February 4, 2005).
—E. M. Shostak
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