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Falls High student takes speaking prize

Like most of us, Niagara Falls High School student Fiza Batool gets nervous when she has to speak in front of an audience.

But that didn't stop the 17-year-old from beating seven other local high school students to win the Theodore Roosevelt Public Speaking competition Sunday at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo.

Her impassioned five-minute speech about the nation's 26th president and his dedication to protecting the environment was strong enough to win Fiza the first prize, which included a check for $1,000.

"I used to get very scared when I did public speaking, and I still do get nervous," said Fiza, wearing a huge smile after the competition. "I'm still nervous, but about two years ago, I began to learn to hide it."

Fiza, a junior at Niagara Falls High, was born in Pakistan. She and her family, which includes three sisters and a brother, moved to the region when she was 8 years old. She was the only female finalist.

"She's a very hardworking student," said Andrea Fortin-Nossavage, a Niagara Falls teacher who coached Fiza for the competition. "We're very proud of her. To see her competing against boys from the Canisius and City Honors high schools is a real inspiration to all our students."

An honors student who plays on the school tennis team, Fiza said she wants to become a lawyer. She never stumbled once during her speech before an audience of about 60 people. She and the other seven finalists each had to speak for five minutes without the use of any notes.

"I was moved by the whole idea of President Roosevelt and how he cared for wildlife and the environment," she said. "[As a lawyer,] I want to make my voice heard and make the world a better place."

In addition to the $1,000, Fiza received a book about Roosevelt and a bust of the colorful and widely admired president.

Gabriel Chen from Sweet Home High School finished second and won a $500 check, and Simon Nash of Hutchinson-Central Technical High finished third and received $250.

Other finalists were Taylor Jones of Sweet Home, Gamil Morehead of Hutch-Tech, Darius Matalavage of Newfane High, Will Brown of City Honors and Michael Halloran of Canisius.

The contestants spoke in the same building where Roosevelt -- who had been the vice president -- was sworn in as president after President William McKinley was slain by an assassin in Buffalo in 1901.

Old "TR," who was renowned for his speaking abilities, would have been proud of all the finalists, remarked Molly Quackenbush, executive director of the inaugural site.

"The judges had a very tough job today," Quackenbush said. "Any one of these students did well enough to win."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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