In the end, Michael Barth earned the response expected when a state champion speaker gets up to talk: a round of applause.

Although the Gordon-Rushville High School senior humbly accepts the praise, he realizes his last chance to perform almost didn't take place.

The Nebraska School Activities Association invited Barth to be on NET Television’s “Best of the Best” speech showcase, but then asked him to perform something other than his state championship-winning speech, saying its themes of gender identity could be too controversial for the program set to air on April 20.

When social media got wind of the request and support for Barth spread across the prairie and to both coasts, the NSAA reviewed its decision and invited Barth to read his original selections.

On Thursday, pressure mounted, and cameras and microphones swirled when Barth arrived at NET's Lincoln studio.

But the seasoned performer, who has been accepted into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, didn’t flinch. His performance was like all others he gave this speech season.

Barth, a reluctant hero, realized the speech wasn’t just about him.

“A lot of people have been congratulating me for doing all this stuff -- we got in a car,” he said of his whereabouts much of Wednesday as the controversy raged.

“Everyone else is doing all the calling and emailing, and we were disconnected for most of it. We didn’t know what was going on.”

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Under a mop of brown hair, Barth admits he barely signed up for speech in time as a freshman and only after a friend convinced him it would be fun.

Public speaking became more than that, and he auditioned for the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City this year.

And speech became something he knew could help him make an impact.

“I wanted to do a piece on something that I was passionate about and something I feel needed to be addressed,” Barth said.

Inspired by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s radio earworm “Same Love,” Bradley Hathaway’s “Manly Man” and “Swing Set” by Andrea Gibson, his performance deconstructs the expectations of gender roles placed on individuals in just under eight minutes.

Gordon-Rushville speech coach Sandi Muirhead said she found nothing offensive in Barth’s selection, which he took to her at the start of the school year.

“I’m very, very conservative, and the kids know I don’t accept poems with profanity or sexual innuendo, but I don’t think there is anything offensive about his piece,” she said.

Judges on the speech competition circuit, which starts in January and culminates in March at the state championship at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, agreed.

In fact, Barth said, the only negative criticism he received all year was when one judge noted he had a piece of pizza stuck in his braces during a performance.

Otherwise, every judge praised his willingness to push boundaries on what they called a fresh topic.

So the dust-up over the speech came as a bit of a shock at first.

So did the overwhelming support, which took hold on Facebook and Twitter and spread to several national media outlets.

“It’s just been amazing how much support has come in, and I’m very happy for it,” Barth said.

The added profile could have spelled disaster for Barth's performance before TV cameras, but Muirhead called him a very mature student who handled the spotlight -- and extra expectations brought on by the controversy -- with grace.

She said Barth has long been an example to younger students on the speech team, giving them ideas and mentoring them. The latest example he can provide younger students at Gordon-Rushville and across the state may be the most important.

“You have to be passionate about what you’re doing to be successful and you have to be yourself and stand your ground,” she said. “Michael did that.”

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Even the person at the center of the backlash against the NSAA, Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green, said she learned several valuable lessons after asking Barth to change his speech.

After experiencing a previous controversy when the NSAA board of directors balked at approving a policy supporting non-discrimination of transgender athletes in August, Blanford-Green said she erred on the side of the conservative in dealing with Barth's poem.

“You look at conservative Nebraska and you ask how this is going to play out,” she said, adding she didn’t want the potentially controversial nature of Barth’s poem recital to detract from the showcase -- and the students selected to be a part of it.

She was inundated with emails and phone calls though, and said Barth’s supporters changed her mind.

“If there’s a leader who cannot look at new information and change their minds, they don’t deserve to be a leader,” Blanford-Green said on Thursday.

Moving forward, she said she hopes the focus can shift from the messenger to the message in Barth's speech.

“We need to do what’s in the best interest of students across the state and provide equitable opportunities,” Blanford-Green said. “I don’t think we go out and seek to put something in place that’s not needed to make a point, but I think that when we have something that we need to deal with that we also don’t bury our heads in the sand.”

***

Once the cameras and microphones turned off Thursday afternoon, Barth and Blanford-Green had the opportunity to have the conversation they both wanted.

They joked about the waves Barth’s poem caused for Gordon-Rushville, the state of Nebraska and even the country, although Barth wasn’t aware of most it as he traveled through the Sandhills toward Lincoln.

He worried for a moment that all the hype may disappoint people who tune into "Best of the Best," but Blanford-Green offered a comforting thought.

It’s a thought the high school senior from Gordon-Rushville shared with her the day before.

“You know what you said on the phone yesterday about passion?” she reminded him Thursday. “You can’t lose if it comes from your heart.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education.

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