‘Revered’ Speech and Debate director to retire

Revered+Speech+and+Debate+director+to+retire

Anna Feng and Payton Anderson

Following 18 years of success, inspiration and passionate mentorship as the director of Palo Alto High School’s Speech and Debate team, Jennie Savage is moving on to the next chapter of her career, according to an announcement she made to her team last month. 

Retirement

Savage revealed her plans on April 19 at the team’s annual banquet while surrounded by the dozens of students she’s coached over the past few years. According to Savage, her decision to retire was a result of several factors, the main two being her family and the pandemic. 

Palo Alto High School Speech and Debate director Jennie Savage (center) poses with students from the Public Forum team. Savage has been director of the Paly Speech and Debate team for 18 years and is retiring. According to Savage, the community she has helped build has fostered a safe place for students to learn and grow. “No matter who you are, as long as you are respectful and kind, you’re welcome on our team,” Savage said. “I’m proud of being part of creating that atmosphere.” (Photo: Kyle Hietala)

“My life is at a place where it makes sense for me to take a step back to focus on family obligations, and whatever’s next in my life,” Savage said. “I often say that one of the marks of a good leader is knowing when to leave, and I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity for the team — that would have been way too selfish.”

Savage also said the COVID-19 pandemic pushed her to retire, as the online limitations created a large gap in personal connection between her and her students. 

“It [the pandemic] has very much influenced my decision,” Savage said. “I feel as though I don’t know my students — my first and second years — the way that I know the kids that I was around constantly, going to tournaments with.” 

Savage said she was comfortable with her decision to retire because she believed Kyle Hietala, a Yale debate champion and assistant coach of the Paly team, would make a perfect fit as the new director.

“He is a brilliant coach,” Savage said. “The students immediately bonded with him. They say when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and I think that’s right. I was ready, he was ready, and it just happened.”

History

Before Savage was involved with the Paly program, she herself was a debater in the 70s and early 80s. She grew up as a second-generation American in Montgomery and attended the Montgomery Academy, a rigorous school that she compares to The Harker School, where Savage was first introduced to debate.

“I became a debater because I was fascinated and drawn to intellectual wordsmithing,” Savage said. “Debate is like mental speed chess, and I’ve always loved ideas, dissecting things and turning them on their heads.”

Savage’s interest in debate became a springboard for what she chose to do for a living.  

“I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund right out of college, and I had written a book on childcare policy,” Savage said. “So, I was really interested in policy, and I translated it into a career on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide.”

When Savage entered the Paly Speech and Debate program 18 years ago as an assistant coach, she only planned to continue until her son was in early elementary school. The minor commitment then turned into a full-time job when she accepted the position of director. 

“I had a three-year-old at home and I thought I’m going to do this until he’s in kindergarten or first grade,” Savage said. “It [debate] was just something that I loved, and I still feel so passionate about.” 

Kyle Hietala, the director set to replace Savage after she retires, said Savage’s passion for debate has fostered a special, remarkable environment for students.

“Jennie’s impact on the Speech and Debate community is nothing short of legendary,” Hietala stated in an email. “It’s remarkable to see how Jennie builds relationships and how deeply she cares about each student who comes through the program. I’ve spoken with quite a few alumni during this leadership transition, and Jennie is simply revered — I think she’s truly been a defining, pivotal figure in many students’ lives.”

According to the team’s Lincoln Douglas captain junior Ethan Boneh, Savage has helped him overcome many of the challenges he and the debate team have faced over the past two years. Even though she is stepping down, Boneh said he will continue to rely on her for advice and support.

“She [Savage] has helped me persevere when things got difficult and taught me to stay positive when things were volatile,” Boneh said.

Community 

For many of her students, Savage said, the club is like a second home — a place where they can feel loved and accepted for their ideas.

“A really important thing for me to do was to provide not just a refuge, but a place at Paly for those students who really are our cultural creatives to be recognized and to thrive and to feel at home,” Savage said.  

Savage’s emphasis on a welcoming environment has been felt by many club members including junior Meena Narayanaswami, who participates in Lincoln Douglas Speech and Debate.

“I remember being really nervous about speech and debate when I was a freshman, and she did a good job of making me feel like I belonged in speech and debate and like my contributions were valued,” Narayanaswami said.

Faculty advisor and math teacher Daniel Nguyen added that Savage’s contributions to the program have been invaluable. Despite the growing size and success of the program, Nguyen said she has always prioritized developing a deep relationship with every student.

“Jennie is absolutely priceless,” Nguyen stated in an email. “She started the team almost 20 years ago and has built it up into one of the foremost programs in the Bay Area. Despite the size of the team, she also gets to know every single member of it. She mentors them, gives them a shoulder to cry on, and helps them grow as students and people.”

This sentiment of closeness is echoed by Savage, who believes the club is one that is extremely supportive and welcoming. The team members even refer to themselves as the Paly Speech and Debate family, Savage said.

“You don’t have to be the smartest kid in the room, but you’re ours, and if you’re there to support your teammates, and kick around fascinating intellectual ideas and learn and listen, then you’re welcome,” Savage said.

Going forward

Savage said she has no immediate plans for what she will do with her newfound spare time.

“I’m going to take a year and figure it out and go to my farm in Vermont and drive my tractor in nature for a little while,” Savage said.

She said she will still be involved in the Paly team, just in a different role.

“I’ll be director emeritus next year and that means mostly that I’m mentoring and writing any letters of recommendation,” Savage said. “But I’m not coaching debate, I’m not hiring the staff and I’m not at the practices.”

As for the team’s goals, Savage said she is excited for the future.

“I have a dream that I get to watch the next chapter of it unfold and see somebody else’s interpretation and furtherance of the basis that I built for 18 years,” Savage said. “I feel so confident and excited about that.”