Sibling duo leads charge for RCHS into public speaking state championships

By Felicity Taylor

The first time Rockbridge County High School Forensics Club Coach Amanda Burks heard Blake Darmante try out public speaking, she knew he had a gift for thinking and debating on his feet.

His younger sister Hallie also joined the team and tried the storytelling category. She used her voice and body movements to act out characters.

“I’ll just say, these two are spirited,” Burks said.

Blake, a junior, and Hallie, a freshman, steamrolled their competition during their first year on the team. They will join another Rockbridge High student, Caroline Diette, in the Virginia High School League Forensics State Championship on March 27.

Burks credits their successes in debate competition to natural talent, hard work and enthusiasm. The brother and sister give credit to carrots, which they munch on before competitions.

Hallie memorized the story, “Horton Hears a Who,” because it conveys a message of “having your little voice heard,” which she said is important for people who’ve experienced isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hallie Darmante prepares a speech.

The competitions were held over Zoom this year. The championship on March 27 also will be virtual.

Hallie said she imagines her video square as a stage and adapts her performance to the tiny space within the frame.

Blake competes in the impromptu category. He called it “the daredevil category of forensics.”

In competition, judges provide Blake with a list of four items from one of four categories—people, places, quotes and events. He has seven minutes to pick one, prepare and give a speech about it.

In practice, Burks gave Blake the names of four public figures: Russian activist and lawyer Alexei Navalny, climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle. Blake spent two minutes jotting down notes and jumped into a speech about Markle’s recent interview with Oprah about her experience with the British royal family.

Blake describes himself as spontaneous, which serves him well in competition. “I like it because my life is impromptu,” he said.

He prepares by reading the news websites every night and watching at least three TED Talks per week.

He said he doesn’t have trouble with Zoom competitions because he can connect with the judges on the screen. Seeing their faces helps him gauge their reactions.

Blake also plays lacrosse. He said he is as superstitious about forensics as he is about lacrosse.

“I am a firm believer in pregame rituals,” he said. “If I feel clean, I play clean.”

Blake said he brushes his teeth and puts on Chapstick before every lacrosse game. Before forensics competitions, he eats carrots.

The day of their first competition, Hallie said she was so nervous she couldn’t form coherent sentences, while Blake was “just chilling, eating carrots.”

To calm her down, Blake told her to eat some carrots with him. That day, both siblings advanced in their respective categories.

Growing up, the siblings said they competed over everything, even video games. They fought over Sonic the Hedgehog.

“We used to get in trouble when we were little. We’d play Sonic the Hedgehog and got in trouble,” Blake said.

Competing in separate categories helps them to support each other. Between competition rounds, Hallie said, she goes to Blake’s room across the hall in their house for support.

“He’s kind of my best friend,” she said.

Burks said she loves the energy the brother and sister bring to the team. She has a message for the Darmantes: “Keep eating carrots because it’s working.”