John’s Journal: Moorhead Speech Director To Receive National Honor
Veteran Educator Rebecca Meyer-Larson Named Winner Of NFHS Citation
Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2023 - 5:17 PM
Rebecca Meyer-Larson had big plans for her life. As a teenager, she dreamed about taking off for New York City and working toward a career as a stage director.
But life, of course, sometimes has other plans. Meyer-Larson went straight from Minnesota State Moorhead to a teaching position at Moorhead High School, and it’s not a stretch to say she has been in a dream job –and doing a great job -- ever since.
Beginning in 1991, Meyer-Larson’s duties have included language arts teacher, theatre director and speech coach at Moorhead. She has led the Spuds speech team to the MSHSL state championship in five of the last six years, and overall she has coached 29 individual state champions and 232 medalists. She has coached National Speech and Debate Association speakers in several categories, including 16 national finalists.
Meyer-Larson is not one to focus on personal acclaim, but her years of dedication to students is being recognized by the National Federation of State High School Associations. During the annual NFHS summer meeting in late June in Seattle, she will be awarded the NFHS Citation Award.
The Citation Award is one of the most highly regarded achievements in high school athletics and performing arts. Meyer-Larson will be a recipient in the category of Speech/Debate/Theatre/Academics.
“I had such big dreams and ideas, but I can’t imagine I would have liked doing anything more than teaching and high school speech,” Meyer-Larson said this week.
During 30 years as an educator, she has created a respected learning environment that encourages young people to explore their love of the arts and focus on social justice and human rights issues. She directed the Trollwood Performing Arts School in Moorhead from 2000 to 2008, where she developed and led an arts-integrated middle school theatre program. While leading the school, she coordinated grants to support other artists and educators in creating curriculum and establishing standards to measure student success.
The first member of her family to go to college, Meyer-Larson is a native of Audubon, Minnesota. Her school started a One-Act Play program while she was a student. A professor at Minnesota State Moorhead saw her perform, and – much like Meyer-Larson has done for countless students – he changed her life.
“He shook my hand and said, ‘I think you have some talent and we’d love to see you at MSU,’ ” she said. “We don’t understand the importance of telling kids that they have talent. That changed my entire trajectory.”
She had considered becoming a hair stylist (“It’s a fine career and I would have found the artistry in it, for sure,” she said). She credits her mother for helping her navigate the process of applying for college. She uses her experience as a lesson for students.
“God bless my Mom, she figured it out and here I am. I tell kids all the time that the world belongs to people who show up.”
Meyer-Larson helped found the Broadway Lights Series in 2009, which connected young artists with Broadway professionals to produce contemporary musicals. The program has since been renamed Act Up Theatre, which she describes as “a performance and training ground for young artists with exceptional musical theater talent, stage presence and a discipline that makes them stand out.”
Meyer-Larson teaches with the philosophy of igniting the spark in every student, demonstrating the strength of individuality and creativity. During her 32-year career, she has received many honors, including two U.S. Presidential Scholars Program Teacher awards, NFHS Outstanding Educator State Award, Presidential Teaching Medallion recipient, Five Diamond Coach from the National Forensic League and the 2019 MSHSL AA Coach of the Year.
Meyer-Larson’s husband, Paul, is a former wrestling coach who is a second-grade teacher in Moorhead. Their daughter Izzy was a two-time state speech champion in Duo Interpretation (with Devon Solwold). A recent graduate of George Mason University near Washington, D.C., Izzy was a national collegiate champion in dramatic duo. Their son Finn joined the Spuds speech team as a junior last year and remains on the team as a senior, “which is exciting,” Meyer-Larson said.
I followed Rebecca and her team during the final day of the 2017 MSHSL state speech tournament, which resulted in a story for John’s Journal. Here is that story, originally posted on April 22, 2017…
State Speech: A Day In The Life Of The Spuds
“Kaden, how do you feel?”
“You feeling good, Maryn?”
Rebecca Meyer-Larson was checking on her team a few minutes before Friday’s Class 2A state speech competition began at Apple Valley High School. The Moorhead coach knew the hay was in the barn after months of hard work, and she also knew the final day of the season held high expectations.
There are 13 categories in speech, ranging from Creative Expression to Extemporaneous Speaking to Storytelling to Original Oratory. Last year Moorhead went home with a state championship in one category (Izzy Larson and Devon Solwold in Duo Interpretation) and won enough second- through eighth-place medals to share the 2016 team championship with Eagan.
A few days before Friday’s event, Meyer-Larson talked to me about speech and what makes it different from other MSHSL activities.
“It’s not like wrestling, it’s not about getting a pin, it’s not about getting faster,” she said. “It’s so subjective. All you can control is how much you can control; sleep, preparations.”
This is Meyer-Larson’s 25th year as the Spuds coach. In her first year, the team consisted of five students. This year there are 74; 28 of them qualified for state via the Section 8 tournament.
“We always start with, ‘Who do you want to be later in life? What kind of person do you want to become?’ ” she said. “I’m biased of course, but I think this activity is the best at preparing these kids for the future. I’m amazed by their intelligence, their drive, their desire to do good and be good.”
As the Spuds knew, there were no guarantees Friday. Izzy Larson (the coach’s daughter) and Solwold were back to defend their Duo Interpretation title. That category has been a Spud specialty, with Matthew Wisenden and Jordan Hartjen winning state in 2014. Could Izzy and Devon make it three Moorhead Duo Interp titles in four years?
State speech is a torrent of cross-current performance streams. Classrooms are the competition sites, with speakers, judges, room managers, coaches and fans studying maps of the school to find the room and speaker(s) they want to see. In the first three rounds, six speakers are in each room and their lineups change during those rounds so different judges can see them.
Following the first three rounds, the top eight in each category advance to the championship round, with each category viewed by five judges.
In Extemporaneous Speaking, Moorhead’s Bridget McManamon’s first-round presentation centered on President Trump’s relationship with American workers and labor unions. As she made her points while discussing things like NAFTA and jobs in the coal industry, Bridget quoted articles from The Economist, Politico and other sources.
Evyn Judisch -- competing in Creative Expression with a highly entertaining presentation that he authored (titled “Greetings Mr. Ducksworth”) -- sat at a classroom desk waiting for the room manager to start the round. All the speakers dress in business attire; males in dark suits and females in skirts and jackets. Evyn, with slicked-back hair and large eyeglasses, owned the room as he voiced three characters and physically “became” them. He had seemed small as he sat at the desk but was larger than life during his performance.
In a nearby classroom a few minutes later, Moorhead’s Kaden Moszer was the opposite of teammate Evyn during his Serious Interpretation of Prose speech: “I’m Not a Serial Killer” by Dan Wells. While Evyn made Room 219C laugh, Room 211 was buried in absolute silence as Kaden glared, glowered, muttered, screamed and raised an invisible knife (no props are used).
“By the end of the season they’ve been giving these speeches for a while,” Meyer-Larson said. “It’s fresh every weekend, but we always tell them you walk up to the front of the room and they ought to see in you that you love your words, you love this activity, love your team and represent the activity and your school.”
After three rounds, lists of those who qualified for the championship round were posted on TV monitors throughout the bright, spacious school. The results, as it turned out, were very good for the Spuds: 16 of them advanced to the final round. That meant 16 medals would be traveling home to Moorhead
At the end of the day the results were announced, with MSHSL speech rules clinician Cliff Janke at the podium. One by one, the eight finalists in each category came to the stage and stood in a line as winners of the eight medals were revealed, from eighth to first.
It quickly became clear that this was going to be Moorhead’s day. Storytelling state champion: “From Moorhead, McKensie Bedore.” Informative Speaking state champion: “From Moorhead, Sarah Schulz.” Serious Interpretation of Prose state champion: “From Moorhead, Noel Kangas.”
The first three categories to be announced resulted in three champs from Moorhead. Meyer-Larson sat in the bleachers with the team, standing, applauding and seeming breathless at times.
The Spuds’ Carolyn Solberg won gold in Great Speeches and teammate Maryn Cella placed third. In Serious Interpretation of Drama, Luke Seidel was second and Kenan Stoltenow was sixth. In Humorous Interpretation, Ariana Grollman finished as a state runner-up and Sophia Klindt was fourth.
The closers came through, too. Izzy and Devon were awarded their second consecutive state championship in Duo Interpretation and teammates Abby Dahlberg and Skyler Klostriech were fifth. Then came the team scores: Moorhead 84 points, Apple Valley 62, and Eagan and Lakeville North sharing third place with 34 points.
For the jubilant Spuds, this had become a day of Non-Extemporaneous Peaking.
“It was definitely kind of a trial to get through it,” Devon said of winning another title with Izzy. “I was really, really eager this year, even more than last year, to just be here. You of course want to do it again but you’ve got to swallow whatever happens. The fact that it went down this way is phenomenal.”
“The reason why these kids are so good is because Minnesota is so good,” said Meyer-Larson. “And that’s because of the Minnesota State High School League, the way they treat these kids. They treat them like rock stars. If you ask any kid here, they believe what they’re doing is every bit as important as what happened at state hockey or state wrestling. Because it is. The high school league does a brilliant job of making these kids feel special.”
After photos, hugs and even a few tears, the day – a remarkable day for the kids who were 250 miles from home -- had ended.
“It’s just so fun,” Izzy said. “One thing my mom says the most is that it’s not about the trophies and how well you do; it’s about the heart and how much passion you have for your speech and your team and sticking together and having an awesome time. And that’s we did. Sometimes it works out.”
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]