An Inside Look at the Custer Contest


The 111th Custer Contest performers with MCHS counselor Janelle Smith from left: Smith, Brooklyn Cornelius, Morgan Preston, Neel Mistry, Taylor Harsin, and Keara Eder

Keara Eder, Staff Reporter

An Inside Look at the Custer Contest

*Spoilers for I am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall

The Custer Contest consists of the top five students from the senior class who participate in an oratory contest. Each student chooses a book to take excerpts from and perform for twelve to fifteen minutes without using props or a microphone, and we are not allowed to overact. What does overacting even mean?

I was asked to participate in January of 2022. I gave it some thought but figured it would be a fun experience, and I should go ahead and try it. There was speculation about who would be participating for the next week or two. No participants were confirmed until the first meeting with Mrs. Roberts, where all contestants showed up. It was then that I found out I would be taking the stage with Morgan Preston, Brooklyn Cornelius, Taylor Harsin, and Neel Mistry. I was very excited because they were all my friends who would give outstanding performances.  

I had recently read a book called I am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall. I fell in love with this story about a girl who has to survive in the Canadian wilderness without anyone to rescue her. The story embodied a powerful teenage woman in a way I hadn’t seen. The way the main character (Jess Cooper) had to overcome her weaknesses to survive drew me to the storyline. Now that I had a story in mind, I needed to find a coach.

I tried to look up previous articles about the Custer Contest to get some ideas, but there were very few I could find. I did see that Lee Strassell, MCHS Mathematics Department Head, had been a former coach. I have had Strassell in class a few times, and I knew he was very creative and would be a good coach. When I asked Strassell to be my coach, he had to think about it because he had no longer planned to coach. I was very nervous that he would say no, and I would have to spend more time looking for a coach. 

I was very grateful to find out that Strassell agreed to be my coach the next day. He gave me ideas to look for in a book and what the story will need to make a good performance. I pitched my book idea, and he said he would look at the book and then decide if it was Custer worthy. 

I was stressed for the next few days while Strassell read I am Still Alive. Before he finished the book, he had told me that it probably wouldn’t be good enough, so I should look at some other books. I was disappointed, but I looked for another book anyway. When Strassell had finished I am Still Alive, he told me it was perfect. That gave me the idea that the end would need to be very impactful for success. 

We started discussing what should and should not be included in the story. We had to cut many minor characters and background scenes of the main character. We even had to mix two of the villain characters into one character. We knew that we needed the big villain and Bo (the dog) in the story and the background for Jess’s parents. 

I came up with our idea for the ending and made Bo an almost equally important character as Jess. Strassell had found the perfect beginning, so the only thing we were missing was the middle. Strassell took control of piecing all of the excerpts together, and I would focus on memorization after he finished. The only issue with our plan was that Strassell was going to Europe for Spring Break and Custer was three weeks after Spring Break. 

A few weeks before Spring Break, all of the contestants had a meeting with the counselors to go over the criteria for our performances, the order in which we would go, and divide up practice times on the stage. My name was drawn to go third, right in the middle. Strassell later told me that it was perfect timing because I could feed off the other performances’ energy, but I also wouldn’t be waiting forever.

The 111th Custer contestants having a laugh.

My softball schedule created a significant hindrance when practicing for Custer. Thankfully my softball coach, Tim Torrence, was very generous and considerate with me splitting my time. However, my softball games had started when the contestants were allowed to use the stage for practice time, so I only got around two hours of practice on the stage. 

Since I had limited practice time, Strassell and I resorted to practicing during the school day. After Strassell had finalized the script and we made sure it was within the time limits, I spent most of my day memorizing lines. By the time I had started to learn my piece, there were two weeks until Custer. So I had to split between memorizing and practicing with Strassell.

We began to block out where I should be on stage and if I should be standing or sitting. We also had to figure out the timing of movements with the words of the monologue. Throughout my performance, I had to get down on my knees and back up multiple times. I had realized that I was going to have to wear dress pants instead of a dress. That also meant I needed to go shopping. Yay!

I spent almost an hour and a half trying on clothes at Maurices that I could potentially wear for the contest. I had narrowed my choices down to two outfit options and just decided to get them both if I needed a backup. I ended up wearing a black shirt with gray pants and burgundy shoes on the day of the Custer Contest. I chose that outfit as if my character were wearing funeral colors. The burgundy shoes represent the blood that she is “covered” in from her guilt.  

By the time the day of Custer rolled around, I was fully prepared and ready to give my performance. I was extremely nervous and excited, but I knew that I knew all of my lines and could give a flawless performance. All of the contestants were put in the choir room as we waited for the event to start. We were all very nervous and couldn’t sit down because of nerves.

We started asking each other questions about the performances and the plot of everyone’s book. I felt like the conversation helped calm my nerves and everyone else’s. I found that distracting my mind was the best way to relax, which happened when I was with the other contestants. 

Strassell was hosting the contest, so he was the one to take us out of the choir room and introduce us on stage. Strassell gave us encouraging words and little tips before going on the stage, and I felt his encouragement boosted my confidence. He led us onto the stage, and we all sat in our seats, ready to start. 

My hands were sweating from the moment I stepped onto the stage. I was very nervous. I wanted to tell Jess’s story well, and I was worried that I would mess up. I was not anticipating the lights on the stage to be so bright that I couldn’t see the audience, but I found that it worked in my favor. I could relax and pretend I was back to performing in front of my cats. 

Morgan went first, and she set the bar high. She made very few mistakes, if any, and was very engaging. Brooklyn went next and had chosen a comedy piece that contrasted the rest of the performances that dealt with death. She did a fantastic job and lightened the mood among the audience. I was even more nervous because everyone was laughing and ready to go into my story. For my piece to be successful, I had to make people cry. 

Waiting for my turn felt like an eternity, and I was covered in sweat when it was my turn. My name was announced, and I walked to center stage to begin. I don’t remember most of my performance. I remember feeling like I was well-paced and expressed my emotions well. When I finished my piece, I knew that I couldn’t have done any better. Strassell told me going into the day of Custer that when all is said and done, I needed to be pleased with my performance and know I couldn’t have done any better. 

I sat back down, pleased with my performance, and watched Taylor and Neel do their performances. They both did well, and I was amazed by how well everybody had done that day. I didn’t know how the judges were going to choose. They took a long time discussing too. While we waited for the results, we were ushered back into the choir room.

Instead of nerves, the room was filled with excitement and energy. We decided to capture this moment in a picture to have this memory in a photograph. Taking the picture itself created a whole new set of memories. Taylor used her phone to take the picture and set it on a timer. As she ran back to join the rest of us in the picture, she slipped and fell. Face-first onto the floor. The rest of us were either laughing or in shock by the fall. This moment left an incredible picture of our natural reactions while Taylor was lying on the ground. 

We eventually took a “better” picture where Neel set the timer and ran back. Even after taking the picture, we had plenty of wait-time, so we turned on some jams. Brooklyn turned on “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Encanto. The girls began singing the song in perfection while Neel stared in shock. We danced and sang and laughed. It was the perfect way to send us back out on stage to announce the results. 

At this point, I didn’t care who won because we all did exceptionally well. I was very proud of Brooklyn when she was crowned the winner. I took many pictures with Brooklyn and my family afterward to remember all of the support I had in completing this project. I was relieved to be finally done with this project because I had spent the last several weeks solely focusing on the Custer Contest. 

I was relieved until I realized that I had so much school work to catch up on. I was very behind in many of my classes, and I spent the rest of my week catching up on work and turning things in. Some of my test scores had dropped slightly, but I managed to raise my grades after some hard work. After my make-up work was out of the way, it was time for me to start studying for AP tests. I have been non-stop working this semester, but I am still happy that I chose to participate in the Custer Contest and make new core memories.