TAMPA — Melissa Milian stepped up to the microphone, placed her hands on her hips and grinned.
Before her in the auditorium was a sea of people — parents, students, teachers, even reporters, all waiting to see what this 11-year-old with the Spanish accent had to say.
Some would hear her speech and still not completely understand. How do you explain a two-year journey in three minutes?
It was the final round of the 4-H/Tropicana Public Speaking Contest. Seated up front last week were 16 of the gabbiest, chattiest, most self-possessed students in the 190,000-student Hillsborough County school system.
Just as kids have done for the past 40 years, they had written their own speeches, burned them into memory. Where rivals had stumbled or succumbed to stage fright in school contests and the semifinals, these students had conquered.
But none overcame a challenge quite like Melissa's.
"Are you lucky enough to have a best friend?" she said, launching into her speech. "Well, I am, and they are Abi and Brenda.
"They were the only ones who helped me and cared about me when I didn't know any English."
• • •
They can giggle about it now, sitting around a conference table. Brenda Hidalgo, Abi Etchene and Melissa, all fifth-graders at Mendenhall Elementary.
But two years ago, just arrived from Cuba, Melissa was lost. Something about her manner — that quiet bearing, or her utter lack of English — rubbed kids the wrong way.
"Some people, they thought I was kind of mean because I didn't know English," Melissa says. "And every time when they talked to me, I didn't know how to respond to them. They thought I was saying bad stuff to them or ignoring them, and I really wasn't. I was trying to talk to them, and I couldn't."
Abi came to the rescue first, sticking up for her and telling teachers there was a problem.
Then Brenda, a Cuban immigrant herself, stepped forward. She translated every word their teacher said into Spanish, and every word Melissa said into English.
Soon they had become a power team. Brenda, Abi and Melissa — B.A.M., they called it. Everyone wanted to join. It's all right there in the speech, 344 words from start to finish. How Melissa made it in America.
• • •
Her father, Ariel, sat in the back of the auditorium and watched the speeches.
Video games can be very healthy for you, one student urged. Getting old is a bummer, another told a mostly aged audience. Dogs really are man's best friend. Money is full of germs.
Ariel's own daughter took the stage without notes, pouting at the sad parts and punching her fist for emphasis.
"It was hard for me," she told the crowd. "But Brenda would translate what the teachers were saying and that helped me understand the lessons, like reading and science."
Afterward, Melissa draped her arm around her father's neck as little brother Jonathan sat nearby.
Now it was all up to the judges.
She translated a bit of her father's story, his Spanish to her English.
He had won the one-in-a-million immigration lottery and brought his family to America with Uncle Sam's blessing. He was sorry his wife couldn't be there, but she had gone straight from her cashier's job at Publix to English classes. He used to sell foodstuffs back in Cuba, but now he was working as a landscaper.
On this night, he had rushed from that job to make the finals, still sweaty from the Tampa sun.
Melissa wouldn't place in the top four. But, at this moment, with the winners still to be announced, trophies didn't seem to matter.
Ariel was asked: How did it feel to see his daughter up there on stage, delivering a speech in America?
"Orgulloso," he said.
"He was really proud of me," Melissa translated. "He was really proud."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.