8 things I have to say about debate

Featured imageA year ago, I wrote a post entitled “What It Means to Debate.” Looking back on what I had written, I still agree largely with what I had written. But alas, we are never stationary and that means that my opinion has changed, shifted, and accumulated much more knowledge and experience since when I last touched on the subject on policy debate as an activity.

8. The Novices.

They are the future of your debate team, the kids that will be seniors when you’re juniors in college, whose life courses you have the ability to influence depending whether you convince them with your charisma and behavior to stick with debate.

When you think about it, debate is what you make it and part of what you make it is demonstrated to others that join as weak freshmen and look to the seniors to see what they might look like one day.

These are little freshmen that timidly walk into the debate room and step over tangles of wires and computer chargers, making their way over to the coach to ask about joining. They might come in because their parents encouraged them to join (like me) or because they had some genuine interest that drew them to the extracurricular or because they know/are siblings of older students that are involved. Whatever the motivation, its significance goes as far as they take it. It’s less about why you start, and more about why you choose to continue.

So when you’re interacting with the younger kids on your team, remember to approach them as timidly as they approached you and regard them with positive kindness. These are the kids that you are going to watch transform before your very eyes.

7. I’m excited to learn.

You know when you get that overwhelming desire to open your math textbook and immerse yourself in all of the theorems and equations? Yeah, me neither.

But I get that high all of the time with debate. I truly and genuinely stop my homework and pull on a pair of headphones and go at my debate work for solid hours, all of the time. People have taught me to never ignore that drive and let it carry you, because why disregard a drive to learn? Why put off a chance to better yourself? It’s not like the pile of English reading and Spanish annotation is waiting for you seductively, with a rose in its mouth.

No, there’s a reason why you’re constantly drawn to the debate files on your computer, and that’s because the activity promotes this unprecedented mindset to work, work, work, because that’s big on winning debates and progressing.

There’s a reason why I’m much more willing to read up on climate change or asteroid collisions than I am to open a textbook and study who knows what, and that’s because the drive to work at debate is not backed up by grades, but rather, the incentive to improve at something you have engrained yourself in. And at the end of the day, isn’t that all that matters? Trophies are shiny and certificates are nice to look at, but isn’t it exhilarating to go to sleep a better person than you were the day before? It’s about progress that you can touch and feel, acquired day by day.

6. Debaters are their own group at school.

That’s sort of a double-edged sword. I find myself getting more and more distant from the students at my school as the years pass by, but in return I get closer to the kids who hibernate in the squad room every free period and lunch hour, who I sit next to on planes, who I share rooms with at tournaments, and with whom I spend time after school.

That’s a struggle, but finding a balance on the seesaw of friendships becomes easier, especially senior year, when the class grows this unexplainable bond.

They’ve got their own group within the student body. They’re the ones that aren’t as much on Twitter and Facebook during class and other class, but on pages of highlighted text and news articles about Cuba and the like. They’re the ones that you ask to “debate speak” for them, who you pick first when the teacher says “let’s have a class debate,” and who you complain about when they’re on the opposing team in said class debate. I mean, really? They’re the ones that always start with, “Well, I went to debate camp for 7 weeks” when the teacher asks what everyone did over their summers.

The teachers see them as the students that always come back from the weekend not refreshed and ready to learn, but exhausted and less concentrated in class, who are always coming in to get absence forms signed and assignments extended. But they’re also the students that have lots of deep, interesting contributions to class discussions, shedding new light on a topic that was frankly, becoming mundane and redundant anyways.

5. We talk about things other than school drama and sports.

Which is not to say that that’s all kids talk about these days, or to create some sort of dichotomy or divide between debaters and non-debaters, but to acknowledge the constant depth of discussion. To my sister, a non-debating freshman (boo), leisurely conversation about what kritEEKs are and what “CP’s” solve the Mexican economy best, and where John Kerry is, and how lame it is that the government is shutdown, are pretty freaky.

But these are the conversations that sort of represent to me the visible and audible ways in which debate has changed my life, and I prefer them over “Omigod, did you see how short her skirt was?” or “Dude, that Cardinals game though.” What is sports anyways?

4. It changed the way I am in the classroom.

I used to be a nervous wreck in class presentations. Visibly shaking, audibly sputtering, and twisting my fingers into knots while trying to explain some concept to a class of students used to be my style. But now, I’m calm, cool, and collected. I have no problem going first, setting some sort of standard (low or high, we’ll never know) for the presenters that would come after me.

Even if I’m not in the limelight, I can participate in discussions like I never would have been able to, speaking off of the top of my head or pitching ideas at which I normally would have scratched my head.

It really translates over into participation grades and note taking and essay grades, being able to take my flowing and analytical skills and integrate them into my learning style.

3. It changed my social sphere.

And look, I feel comfortable saying that the majority of the people that I talk to don’t live in my city. I’ve said that a bunch on this blog before, and every time I say it, I become more accustomed to the idea. I witnessed a departure from the conventional friendship sphere in high school as I grew more involved with debate. It forced a tradeoff between the friends I actually had in my own school, and the friends that live in other parts of the country. This is not to say that I have absolutely no non-debater friends at school, because I do. (Not a complete loser yet) But it does reveal that I’m maintaining lots of long distance relationships; living on the East Coast does not accommodate well when I’m talking to someone on the West Coast (ie, I’m awake at 1AM and it’s 10PM over there). It also means that for a lot of my friends, I get to see them a few times a year at tournaments and such. Yes, it’s extremely nerdy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To be honest, I don’t regret joining debate even though it’s sort of pushing me out of the social sphere at school. I constantly imagine never having joined, and wondering what kind of people I would talk to today.

2. It’s not just an extracurricular.

The benefits set itself apart from any other extracurricular. It’s a lifestyle, one that I’ve adopted for the past four years of my life. It involves traveling on the weekends, devoting long hours to the computer. It’s not a sport (though arguably it is because who else sweats when they argue? kidding), and it’s not a club; we call it a team at our school. Sports are great, and they give you muscle and exercise and teach you sportsmanship, but what if I’m mentally exercising, and what if my brain muscles never stop exercising even when I leave the activity?

There’s a reason so many of us continue debating in college, and even those that don’t debate consider coming back to help judge, coach, and find evidence for those in the community. It’s a team within a school, and a small community within the nation that has grown close over flash drives and summer camp and everything that’s good in between.

1. We’ve come so far.

Disregarding the entire community aspect, debate is as helpful as what you take away from it. Flashback to me in ninth grade, reading words off of a computer and sputtering and being rude when people ask me questions. To not knowing at all what certain arguments were and being the slowest reader on my team, look at me now.

If you are ever doubting your abilities, debaters, just look back at yourselves a few years ago and look at the visible progress that we’ve made. I find that one of the largest factors that makes the activity so satisfying is the progress that you make. There’s so much progress TO be made: speaking skills, argumentation, awareness and concern about the world around you, friendships, and blah blah blah.


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