Friday, January 11, 2013

The Not-So-Great Debater

Some activities in my life are mere gateways to other ones. I like Revolutionary War re-enacting more than Civil War re-enacting, and historic dancing more than historic battles. But I do all of it to be a team player and round out my expertise.

And so it went when I joined the Raytown South High School debate team. I preferred the individual speech events: Humorous Interpretation, Dramatic Interpretation, Original Oratory, Extemporaneous Speaking and so forth, but everybody who did "I.E.'s" had to do debate, and before I dipped my toe into oasis, I had to wander through the minefield.

High-school debate falls into "cross-ex" duo competition or Lincoln-Douglas style one-on-one matches. In my reclusive youth, I didn't have a partner, so I went solo. Lincoln-Douglas style is heady stuff for intellectually developing teenagers. Try coming up with an affirmative or negative case on the following topics:

RESOLVED: That the arts contribute more to humanity to the sciences

RESOLVED: That a parliamentary form of government better supports the values of the Constitution.

RESOLVED: That a candidate's public record is more important than his personal reputation.

It's the stuff of William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" -- and I didn't watch "Firing Line." The topics dealt with values and concepts and abstractions I couldn't wrap my brain around. I couldn't see the counter-arguments because I couldn't see the original arguments. I had to learn the format on my own; our class hadn't gotten around to studying Lincoln-Douglas before the first Novice L-D tournament.

So on a dim Saturday morning in October of 1986, I sat on a cold school bus on our way to my first tournament in St. Joseph, north of Kansas City, nervous and ill at ease in my stomach. A bumpy road and limited shock absorption does little to quell that. My anxieties poured from my mouth and onto the floor.

"Hey! Does somebody have a breath mint back there?" somebody yelled as people pulled their feet up into their seats.

Voided but still queasy, I made it to my first round, and inexplicably, I won it. It ended up being my only victory of the four-round day. I couldn't keep track of the arguments because I couldn't visualize them. I couldn't visualize them because I didn't understand them. I didn't understand them because I had not dealt with them in real life. Taking notes during the opponents arguments barely helped: I still dropped points because I couldn't see them. I wandered through a maze of rhetoric blindfolded, not even knowing if I was asking the right questions of my competition or getting the right answers.

"I didn't know what I was doing," said one novice debater to me after cleaning my clock. Oh, I think you did, I thought.

The refrain would play out at tournaments to come: anxiety, a win here and there, but mostly relief when it was all over and we headed to lunch. I would later find redemption in the individual events, where I had a script and a clear direction -- and I could win.

We grew into a family, with a tournament just about every weekend. It felt like being on tour in a rock-and-roll band, playing gig after gig, going a little bit wild on the side and then getting back home, exhausted but satisfied. The fellowship made it all work.

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