Mantravadi wins “virtual” Langfan competition


This Monday, in the final round of the William K. and Marion Langfan American Constitutional Oral competition, five sophomore finalists displayed their public speaking skills from the comfort of their homes. This year’s topic was about the Equal Right Amendment (ERA), an amendment to guarantee equal legal rights regardless of sex. The finalists gave their speeches over Zoom for a panel of five eleventh grade judges who were last year’s finalists. Mekhala Mantravadi (10) took home the trophy, giving her winning speech on the nation’s need for the ERA, she said.
The Langfan competition gives students the opportunity to learn more about the role of the U.S. Constitution as they explore the natural rights of American citizens in preparation of their speeches. This year’s topic is timely because this past January, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, judge Talia Winiarsky (11) said.
Due to COVID-19, the competition had to be held over Zoom rather than at a large banquet with faculty and friends, judge Mandy Liu (11) said. The speakers shared their five to seven minute speeches and the judges then determined the winner in a separate Zoom meeting, judge Sonia Shuster (11) said.
This year’s Zoom set-up contributed to a more stressful dynamic, Liu said. “I think this makes it more nerve-racking for the sophomores because it feels like you’re just speaking to get judged,” she said. “Last year, we knew the judging part was there but it was more about sharing our ideas. But this year it might feel like students are doing it just to hear who the winner is.”
To win the competition this year, contestants were asked to relate the historical context of the ERA to contemporary issues, Winiarsky said. “I would like to hear context about how the ERA originated and why it’s still necessary today. They should discuss the Constitution as well as major events in legal history that could form an argument in favor of or against the amendment, including any court cases.”
Shuster’s judging criteria has changed due to the virtual setting, she said. “This time around, what the contestants say will matter more than how they say it,” she said. “But I’m still looking to see if the speaker has confidence, a well-researched argument, and this year especially, can keep the audience engaged.”
With the online element of the competition, Mantravadi was able to see her audience while at her home. “Looking at the audience, in person, you feel empowered and form a connection with them through your words,” Mantravadi said. “Online, it is a bit hard to detect the audience’s reaction to your speech, but I think the competition online went really well.”
Mantravadi gave her speech about the need for the ERA to ensure that women have all rights, not just voting rights, she said. “A lot of people don’t know that women aren’t guaranteed rights in the Constitution,” she said. “Women aren’t protected under the Constitution, but we make up 50 percent of the population. Currently, the Supreme Court has to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to say that women and men are equal, but equality should not be interpreted.”
Finalist Alex Nagin (10) also gave a speech in favor of ratifying the ERA, comparing the issue of gender equality to the one of race, he said. His speech examined the impact of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, to show the power an amendment can have in the Supreme Court. Ultimately, similar to the Thirteenth Amendment, the passage of the ERA will lay the framework for Supreme Court Cases that rule in favor of gender equality, prompting a larger future of gender equality, he said.
However, finalist Walker McCarthy (10) proposed an alteration to the Declaration of Independence rather than a new amendment, he said. McCarthy spoke about whether the Constitution should be treated as a living document, he said. “I specifically focused on Jefferson and his writing of the Declaration of Independence ‘All men are created equal,’” McCarthy said. “I support the idea of replacing that with ‘All citizens are created equal.’”
After preparing for the contest, Nagin’s view of the Constitution changed completely, he said. “I used to think that the Constitution was a super holy document that protected everyone,” he said. “But what I found is that it really doesn’t protect all people, especially women. The Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t a declaration of equality; it was a declaration that women could vote. This leaves a whole realm of ways that women can be discriminated against, which has to change.”
For finalist Teddy Ganea (10), the competition pushed him to try a different form of speaking than what he is used to doing in Public Forum Debate, he said. “Overall, it was a really positive experience because it was different from the standardized way of speaking that I do for public forum,” he said. “I was challenged to focus more on the speaking skills rather than just the content.”
Ultimately, the competition challenged Nagin to consider new perspectives and helped him learn from his classmates, he said. “The competition proved to me how many really gifted kids go to school with me and how lucky I am to have them, even if it means I can’t be a winner all the time.”