Sunday, May 06, 2018

Suits and Ties on Monkey Bars

On Saturday I filled in as “coach for a day” and took The Girl to a regional debate tournament in New York City.  

That sentence requires some parsing.

By “coach for a day,” I mean I filled in for the teacher who is usually the team coach.  That meant dealing with registration and lunch orders, mostly. But I had to smile at the term.  I was never terribly athletic, and other than baseball, my understanding of most sports is elementary at best.  Even with baseball, I’m not much help at technique. Between a demanding work schedule and my utter ineptitude at most sports, I never felt entitled to volunteer as a coach for any of the kids’ teams.  I saw other Dads step up, and always felt a mix of gratitude and guilt that they did and I didn’t. It seemed fitting that my first bit of “coach for a day” was in debate. I didn’t really coach them in any meaningful way, but it was the first time I felt like if I had to, I could.  And yes, everyone got lunch.

But the real story was the kids.  The tournament, for grades 6 through 8, consisted of 93 teams of 3 kids each from a total of 33 schools from 7 different leagues in what I think was 9 states.  (My notes are shaky, but I think that’s largely correct.) Each team participated in five debates, with a final, sixth, public debate occurring between the top two teams in front of everyone else.  Every debate was on a different topic, and the kids weren’t told which side of each topic they’d have to argue. So each kid had to prepare two sides on each of six different issues, and know them well enough to withstand attacks.  The research alone is formidable. Then add the public speaking component -- five minutes per topic, plus questions and “heckles” and the need to answer both -- and the sheer stamina required was impressive.

I served as a judge in three rounds, so I got to see TG’s team in the other two.  That means I wound up watching over 30 middle schoolers debate in a single day.

Every single one of them was strong.  Every single one of them.

That made judging hard, but I’m happy to make that sacrifice.  

Seeing over 30 kids, none of whom was old enough to drive, make cogent arguments from research, parry counterarguments on their feet, and graciously accept both victory and defeat gave me hope.  Most of them did better than would most adults I know.

The kids were still kids.  The tournament director, Kate Schuster, gave out her cell number at the opening assembly so people could contact her in emergencies.  But she also invited more informal messages, and reported back a couple of times on the best ones. They included marriage proposals, doggerel, the scroll from every Star Wars movie, and even a rickroll.  (Rickroll? I’m not sure of the capitalization rule there…) The kids howled at all of them. The sartorial range of the students was, uh, let’s go with “expansive,” as tends to happen in middle school. (The less said about my sartorial choices at that age, the better.)   The gender split appeared pretty even, and the racial mix was fairly robust. The school that hosted the tournament had a courtyard in the middle, complete with monkey bars, and the monkey bars were seldom empty. You don’t often see people in suits and ties on monkey bars, but there they were.  It seemed like a pretty concise visual representation of that age.

The Girl’s team stomped, as is its habit.  It came in 11th out of 93 teams, winning four out of five matches and the trophy for “best team from the Jersey Shore league.”  The entire delegation from her school won seven out of ten, which is pretty good for the caliber of teams they faced. Even better, they worked together beautifully.  TG and her two teammates had collaboration down to a routine, and had already decided on the speaking order for every permutation of every topic before they even arrived.  During the twenty-minute windows before each round started but after the topic was announced, they got right to it, working in near-silence as they prepared their notes together.  

When I watch political shows, what passes for debate is mostly a combination of “talking points,” cheap shots, and appeals to prejudice.  Even worse, the speakers talk over each other. But here, kids too young to drive showed how it should be done. I read somewhere that part of the reason the Parkland kids have been so effective is that they were trained in debate; from what I saw on Saturday, I absolutely believe it.

The kids are doing great.  It’s the adults I’m worried about.