The Northeast regional championships for the Middle School Public Debate Program took place on Saturday. The Girl competed. I judged.
Logistically, it was quite an operation. 264 debaters were there, ranging from New England to DC. Judging by the school names, I’m pretty sure that nearly all of them were from upscale private schools; I’m not sure what they thought of our low-slung public school. The dress code was the junior high interpretation of “formal,” which is to say, eclectic. At that age, the students can look anywhere from nine to twenty, and they did.
Watching the students, I couldn’t help but feel a little wistful. Nerd culture has come a long way since I was that age. Back then, what Anthony Edwards called “nerd persecution” was a real thing; now, they’re kind of cool, in their way. As they should be.
The students competed in teams of three. Every team participated in five debates, with the two top teams competing in a sixth round at the end. Teams won or lost as teams, but each speaker was awarded individual speaker points based on performance. It’s possible for a team to get more speaker points and still lose, because sometimes the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
The team advisor, a social studies teacher, pulled the team aside before everything started to thank them for a great year. For the record, the room was a little dusty, and dust can have funny effects on adult eyes. Allergies and whatnot. They can sneak up on you.
For this tournament, her Jersey grandparents came to watch her in action. They had never seen her debate before, so they were excited to catch a couple of rounds.
The Girl had a strong year in debate, even winning the “golden gavel” at one tournament. But the tournaments, up until now, featured probably 50-75 kids, fairly evenly split between public and private schools. 264 kids, mostly from selective schools in New York City and DC, is a very different matter. She barely needs any coaching from me at this point, so I mostly just let her do her thing. In the car on the way there, when she admitted some nerves, I gave the same advice I always do: rather than worrying about winning or losing, which is out of your control anyway, just focus on giving a strong showing. After that, the chips will fall where they’ll fall. If you have a great round but lose to someone who did even better, just tip your cap and make a mental note of something they did that you could use to improve.
She’s really good at that. Her piano teacher up in Massachusetts absolutely loved her because she used feedback for improvement and actually practiced. Debate has been the same way. In her first couple of tournaments last year, she really struggled to fill her time, and was easily thrown off by questions. But she learns every single time; at this point, she’s poised, composed, and confident. She has figured out that she has to open with a hook, lay out her points, anticipate objections, and close clearly and on time. And she has found her voice as a speaker, which has been great fun to watch. In one round, she shut down a questioner so coolly that several of us in the audience gasped. It was elegant. I know adults who can’t do that.
I judged a couple of rounds, neither involving her or her school. Teams can bring six kids for each judge that they bring, so judges are at a premium. I haven’t missed a tournament since she started. Judging is actually fun in itself, because at the end, the judges are supposed to give constructive feedback. It takes me back to my teaching days. My goal, always, is to give them something they can use to do better the next time. Sometimes it’s as simple as “pause.”
The topics weren’t easy. They had to argue the planetary status of Pluto, the composition of the Supreme Court, the merits of the Endangered Species Act, tenure for public school teachers, and nuclear policy. They had a few weeks’ notice, so they could do research, but they didn’t know which side they’d be on until 15 minutes before the round.
TG’s team struggled a bit, losing several early rounds. Part of it was strong competition and part was somewhat uneven judging, but I could see her getting frustrated. I gave her the “just control what you control” piece, and caught her fifth and final round.
If you’ve never debated five times in a day -- I haven’t -- imagine doing it at age 12. I have to hand it to these kids. They were dragging by the end, but you almost wouldn’t have known it.
The day ended with a mass convening in the auditorium for the awards, and the final debate between the two top teams of the day. The final debate was a hoot. It was between two private school teams on the topic of a constitutional convention. One speaker brought the house down -- remember, she was 12 or 13 -- by declaring passionately “the first convention featured James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. Who would this one feature? Donald Trump? Sarah PALIN?” The winning team looked like they could have been in their early 20’s; their final speaker acted like he was giving a TED talk. For junior high, I was impressed.
They gave awards to the students in the top ten percent for speaker points. TG got one! She was the only one from her school, and I’m pretty sure the only one from a public school. It quickly found its way to her Instagram account, as well it should. I got entirely too many pictures with her advisor and her teammates. Many of the stronger debaters on the team are moving on to high school next year, so the advisor was particularly glad to know that TG will still be around. Any coach likes knowing that a top scorer is coming back.
At one point, one of the organizers called out to the crowd that “this is what democracy looks like!” I applauded, not realizing until later just how upscale the group skewed. In a way, that didn’t invalidate the thesis, which is even more disturbing. But still, it gave me hope to see kids so young wielding research, words, and logic with such confidence. And yes, I’m biased, but seeing TG do as well as she did gave me hope, too. She’s a great kid, and I never get tired of seeing other people recognize what I’ve known all along. I’ll stop before the allergies kick in...