When Aisha Toor was a freshman at West Springfield High School, the speech and debate team had only six members.
"No one knew about us," she said, sitting in a hallway on a Friday afternoon.
Three years later, the team has more than 50 active members and has won numerous awards at tournaments across Virginia, all under the supervision of Mary Love Wynne, the school's speech and debate coach.
"Our teams have done super well in the past four years because of Mrs. Wynne," Toor said. "We wouldn't be able to do this without her."
Wynne was recently named the Speech Coach of the Year from the Virginia Association of Speech, Debate, and Drama Coaches, an honor her students believe she deserves.
"Mrs. Wynne is very dedicated. She's the backbone of the team," said Toor, who will be graduating from West Springfield in June but plans to come back and visit Wynne when she has the chance. "She asks our opinions about things and tells us the truth even if it can be brutal at times. She makes us a great team."
INTEREST IN the speech and debate team has grown to such an extent that this year West Springfield is offering a forensics class to allow students the time to practice their speeches, monologues and dialogues for competition while keeping their after-school time free for other activities.
"We're now learning how to write our own speeches," Toor said, which may be used in upcoming competitions.
The students, which meet with Wynne in class on odd-numbered days, practice their performances in class, alone or in pairs, in order for Wynne to grade them in preparation for competition, she said. Some students who had signed up for the class, known as forensics, were disappointed to learn that the lessons had nothing to do with solving crimes or dusting for fingerprints.
"Forensics is public speaking," said Wynne, spending one of many after-school hours in her classroom, where she's often seen helping students long after other teachers have gone home for the day.
Her introduction came eight years ago while teaching at a different high school in Virginia, where she was hired as a speech teacher after years of traveling with her husband, who had served in the military.
"The more I got involved in speech, the more I loved it," she said. "It's so exciting watching the kids, seeing them perform and helping them improve. It's really easy to be inspired by them."
A self-proclaimed over-achiever, Wynne said working with young students helps "keep you young, it keeps your mind active. It's great to work with them on something academic other than sitting in a classroom, reading a book."
The students prepare pieces of varying lengths, either alone or with a partner, for competitions, she said. Each team is judged on several criteria and her students eagerly await their ballots, or scoring sheets, after the results are announced to find ways to improve.
WYNNE'S TEAMS are successful too, she said, with several students having won awards in a Washington Arlington Catholic Forensics League (WACFL) tournament a few weeks ago.
As with other successful organizations, the more the speech teams win competitions, the more students want to join, which has led Wynne to assign six students to be team captains to help younger students prepare.
"I have become more of an advisor or overseer to the group, I don't do so much teaching," Wynne said. She tries to watch every performance "at least once" before they go to competition, but she trusts her students to give sound advice based on their own experiences.
Wynne applauds their dedication to forensics: tournaments are on Wednesdays and during the day on Saturdays, meaning that many other activities or chances for free time away from school are sacrificed for competitions.
"They do give up a lot of time," said Wynne, adding that some parents receive training to be judges at the events.
Coaching the students can be difficult at times, she said. "I do push the kids. I have high expectations for them and I believe people have to be pushed in order to work hard and achieve more," she said.
However, that doesn't mean she expects all 50 of her students to perform at the same level.
"I've learned over the years that I have to let them have the freedom to develop at their own pace," Wynne said.
The hard work pays off, however. In the past few years, Wynne has had a large group of students participate at the state and national championships.
"One student placed sixth at nationals," she said. Another student was named state champion while a third was a runner-up.
WYNNE CREDITS her recognition on her students' abilities to perform and their dedication to their craft.
"Usually, this sort of award goes to someone who's been coaching for 25 to 30 years, so I was really surprised," she said. "My recognition is because my kids are doing so well."
Her students believe Wynne deserves the award for the countless hours of her own time she gives up for them.
"There are so many times when she'd be here really late helping us out," Toor said.
The lessons learned in forensics transcend the classroom.
"I was so shy when I started this class," said Kim Byorick, a senior who hopes to become a teacher. "I took Mrs. Wynne's speech class in 10th grade and I loved it, so I joined the team."
A few years later, Byorick is one of the team captains, helping other students prepare their pieces for competition.
"I never used to be able to go up to someone in the hallway and talk to them, I had to know someone really well to do that," she said. "Now I'm so outgoing. There's definitely been a change."
Wynne counters her students' bouts of stage fright with a calming reassurance that it's all right to be nervous, Byorick said.
"She's very understanding. She helps you ease yourself into the piece and helps you practice it. She's really nurturing," she said.
At the end of the year, Byorick said she and her teammates will often thank Wynne's husband "for giving her to us."
Without Wynne, the team wouldn't be as successful as it is, said junior Nadia Khatouri.
"Mrs. Wynne is very driven, she knows what we need to do to succeed and helps us focus on our performances," she said.
WHEN A student first joins the class or the team, they are required to spend at least an hour and a half each week practicing their pieces, Khatouri said, in addition to attending a monthly meeting to discuss upcoming competitions.
Forensics has taught her how to have the confidence she'll need once she's in the professional world, Khatouri said.
"You learn how to talk to people and have more poise and be more confident," she said. "I'll use this my whole life."
Wynne is also the kind of teacher that students feel comfortable talking to outside of the classroom, Khatouri said.
"Mrs. Wynne is pretty hard core," said junior Sloane Lipkin, a team captain who has worked with Wynne for three years. "She's very strict and demanding, but that's why we're successful."
The West Springfield team has become something of a legend among debate and speech competitions, she said.
"We won districts and regionals last year," Lipkin said. "We're the public school that's the big competition for private schools, and one school we compete against spends six hours a day practicing. We beat them last year," she said.
Still, as good as the team is, winning competitions with the WACFL and the Virginia High School League among others, Lipkin admits "if [Wynne] were to leave the school tomorrow, there'd be no team."