MERIDEN — After years of being labeled a “Debbie Downer” and a “buzz kill” by friends and teachers, Rebecca Wozniak rebutted the characterization, and in doing so won the Platt High School Hicks Speech Contest.
Wozniak’s speech “Making the Case for Pessimism” was a 10-minute defense of the benefits of thinking critically and being a “pragmatic skeptic.” She also won the school’s Hicks Essay Contest, a first in Platt’s history.
“Being realistic about the ugly truths in the world is not an undesirable quality,” Wozniak said in her recorded speech. “Being pragmatic is more beneficial than walking through life with blind optimism.”
The Hicks Speech and Essay contests are 100 years old and held annually in May. This year, students had to adapt to school closures and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That meant recording in an auditorium and facing a camera and camera man wearing a mask as the only audience.
“It was interesting and a little weird giving my speech to a camera,” she said.
Speech finalists were Jaden Roxas, Isabella Martin and Connor Noel. Essay finalists were Kaliah Gomez, Eda Ahiskalioghu and Anahi Gutierrez.
“Each year I’m amazed at how hard the students work to write speeches that are relevant and poignant,” said English teacher Lawrence Boada. “Despite the challenges of writing, recording, and submitting speeches (and essays) during a pandemic, these students persevered.”
The seniors first deliver their speeches in English classes and the best ones are selected by teachers. A small group of teachers then selects four finalists.
“Both speeches and essays were judged by members of the community who were impressed by the level of thought that went into speeches and essays,” Boada said. “I think the Hicks Contest is one of the best showcases Meriden has for our top students to show that they are more than just GPAs and transcripts. They are mature young people with experiences and thoughts to share.”
Wozniak said she prepared for the speech with her English teacher and her aunt, a former Hicks winner, now a professor.
“It was really exciting with everything getting cancelled,” Wozniak said. “It was the only thing that didn’t get canceled. It was something to look forward to. It was a good opportunity when nothing else is going on.”
Wozniak said she selected the topic to state her case for the last time.
“Everybody was always calling me a pessimist,” Wozniak said. “It automatically has negative connotations and leaves a bad first impression. It was a funny response to all the teachers.”
Wozniak ranked third in her class and will major in history and political science at Western Connecticut State University. Earlier this month, her twin sister Elizabeth Wozniak, also attends Platt, was one of three Connecticut high school seniors named a 2020 U.S. Presidential Scholar.