Debate: Finding a voice, head to head
From 'ego-crushing moments' to state championships, high school debaters take risks, earn confidence
At Club Day her freshman year, Palo Alto High School student Julia Lee enthusiastically signed up for longboarding.
Or so she thought.
She never heard back from the long-skateboard group, but she soon began receiving e-mails from the Debate Team. She decided to "just go with it."
From that random beginning, Lee, now a sophomore, has become what her coach describes as a "really good, committed" debater, pushing the boundaries of traditional debate forms.
Lee is one of 87 students on the fast-growing Paly Debate Team, which meets for two intensive evenings a week to prepare "cases" to go head to head with debaters from other schools.
On weekends, team members often can be found "dressed for success" and flying around the country to match wits with counterparts as far flung as the Bronx High School of Science or Alta, Utah.
"It used to be really hard for me to speak in front of people," said Lee, whose first language is Korean.
"I was really self-conscious about my accent. I didn't know what to say; words wouldn't come into my head.
"But practicing made me better, and now I'm not afraid to go in front of people and talk to them."
"We have a lot of people who joined to get over their shyness and it really helps you with that," Paly debater Esha Datta, a sophomore, said of the program, coached by Jennie Savage.
"I don't know a debater now who's scared of getting in front of a classroom and talking about anything," Datta said.
Across town at Gunn High School, about 50 students participate in a similarly engaging — but far different — kind of debate program.
While Paly's team relishes the travel, the high-stakes competition and some of the most arcane and technical debate forms, Gunn's team focuses on local tournaments and forms of debate that are more comprehensible to the uninitiated.
"We do what's called 'slow debate' or 'league debate,'" Gunn debate coach Hoon Ko explained. Ko said Gunn's thriving Model United Nations Club "actually is more reflective of the overall passion at Gunn for debate.
"We're very much tied to the educational goals of being able to speak to the average person, to have a variety of different skills to explain to somebody who doesn't know anything about the subject."
To the uninitiated, the numerous categories of speech and debate can be confusing.
Some categories, such as "impromptu speaking," seem self-explanatory. At a recent Paly practice, students were given three random words — "garbage," "stoplight" and "burrito" — and had two minutes to choose one and prepare a five-minute speech about it.
Other categories demand more specific knowledge and experience. Paly debaters on the technical end engage in a practice known as "spreading" — speaking at an incomprehensible rate of 380 words per minute to get arguments on the record in the allowable time frame. Only trained judges can understand the high-speed blur.
Like Paly coach Savage, Gunn's Ko fell in love with debate during high school. As years went by, he found himself applying the skills he'd learned to a variety of life situations.
Now a software consultant with a Palo Alto tech company, he's coached debate on the side for 18 years, the last five at Gunn. He also coaches debaters at Sacred Heart Prep.
"In almost every job posting these days seeking a leader, a manager, a director, one of the most important things stressed is effective communication skills," Ko said, speaking of the knowledge he tries to impart to students.
"They're looking for the ability to explain something concisely — the ability to review large amounts of information and focus on the relevant, to be able to say something in 45 seconds that gets to the heart of an issue."
Savage, a former Capitol Hill legislative director and now parent of a Palo Alto elementary school student, is equally passionate about the value of debate. In her six years of coaching at Paly, the team has blossomed.
The nearly 150 students on the Gunn and Paly debate teams are a varied crew.
"I have introverts, extroverts, nerds, jocks, lacrosse players, football players, people who star in the band, the vice president of the student body — everybody from all sorts of circles," Savage said.
"The one thing they've got in common is insatiable intellectual curiosity. That's the only common thread."
Gunn sophomore Negin Behzadian was a recent arrival from Iran when she stumbled into debate last year.
"I was just that kind of lonely person over there, not confident of myself, new to the whole American educational system," said Behzadian, who speaks multiple languages. One of her friends needed a debate partner, and she agreed to join.
She is now a seasoned debater in the style known as "Parli," for Parliamentary, in which students are given a topic — and just 20 minutes to prepare their cases.
"I feel really good after a round. I've tried to prove a point, stand up for myself," Behzadian said.
"It's really enjoyable to find out what other people are thinking, get to know a lot about what's going and simply get confidence."
Like many debaters, Paly senior Lucas Chan was drawn to debate because he loves a good argument.
"I've always been told that I'm argumentative, good and bad, so I joined the debate team with the thought of becoming a lawyer," he said.
"It seemed like an activity where I could pursue whatever type of intellectual curiosity I had, and also something I could be good at — I didn't see myself getting much playing time on the basketball team.
"Debate is probably the best decision I've ever made in high school — it's just really, really interesting."
A specialist in the debate form called Lincoln-Douglas, in which topics supplied by the National Forensic League change every two months, Chan said a debater must prepare for "every nuance of a topic that's possible. ...
"I have to be prepared to negate the topic, affirm the topic and anything in between," he said.
Computers and the Internet have drastically changed debating, once dominated by stacks of 3-by-5 cards with meticulous notes culled from hours in a library or reading reference books.
When assigned a topic, say the "morality and efficacy of economic sanctions," Chan said he first turns to Wikipedia.
"Every term, every noun, term of art — such as 'heavily indebted poor countries' — every verb that can be combined with a noun that might be relevant, you 'Wiki' it," Chan said.
"Even though they claim (Wikipedia) is inaccurate, those claims are unfounded because it has strong community standards."
Chan and other debaters also get access to briefs and analyses written by educators at other schools, who produce and circulate those documents whenever a new topic comes out.
After Wikipedia, Chan said, "Google Scholar is quite possibly the best friend in the world." Many other online scholarly sources, such as LexisNexis and JSTOR, also are well-used by debaters.
There's a growing tendency in debate to share information resources, Paly's Savage said. In certain competitions sharing is mandatory.
Gunn debaters also share what they affectionately refer to as "the tubs" — two plastic boxes full of files sorted under topics such as Middle East, Africa, East Asia and American government.
Following the research phase — for which Chan said the "accepted standard" is reading 600 to 1,000 pages on a topic before the first tournament — debaters "write blocks," both affirming and negating the assigned resolution, and anticipating possible arguments of opponents.
Although topics are assigned from above in Chan's chosen specialty of "Lincoln-Douglas" debate, Chan says the arguments can take off in any number of directions.
"Debate gives you the freedom to pursue whatever interests you," he said.
"The format means there are only a couple of rigid guidelines you have to follow — a time limit, and a judge that determines who won. Other than those two rules, there's really no governing consensus over what you can and can't do in a round."
Paly's Debate Team, which two years ago produced California's state champion in the Lincoln-Douglas category, occasionally breaks the rules altogether.
Impatient with perceived sexism on the national debate circuit, one award-winning male Paly debater last year donned a dress and jettisoned the assigned topic to deliver a public critique of debate culture.
That symbolic act, by 2009 California State Lincoln-Douglas Debate champion Avi Arfin — now a student at Yale University — remains a hot topic in the debate blogosphere.
"He got away with it by saying that what he was arguing was more important than the topic itself," Savage recalled.
"We do a bad job of critically examining ourselves. We're so intellectual and want to examine the topic and the facts, but not our own culture.
"Avi really opened inroads into that culture, and there's still discussion going on about what Avi did last year."
Arfin said it's impossible to describe how difficult it was to wear a dress. But as a second-semester senior, he "wanted to leave the activity I loved by making a difference" and sought to tackle far-reaching issues of sexism in debate and in society at large.
Savage said she's similarly proud of the risks taken by sophomore debater Julia Lee who is violating the prescribed format of a nuclear war topic, instead using her time to read first-hand accounts of people who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"She knows she's probably going to lose every round, but she thinks it's more important for those stories to be heard," Savage said.
Debate does not come easily for most people, Savage said.
"I see a lot of kids at Paly who've never failed at anything come onto the team and expect to win out of the gate.
"It's ego-crushing and soul-crushing to lose at their first tournament, and some of them don't come back.
"It's such a shame because they don't get the chance to learn how to fail; to realize that being courageous isn't about not being afraid — it's about being afraid and doing it anyway."
Those who do stick it out are passionate about the rewards — and many grow up to pass along the debate culture to the next generation by becoming part-time coaches.
At Paly Savage employs six assistant coaches — all Stanford students and former high-school debaters, including freshman Nikhil Bhargava, an alum of Paly's debate program.
"Debate almost took over my life for a little while," said Bhargava, who is undecided about his Stanford major but considering symbolic systems. "It was very enjoyable."
At Gunn, assistant coach David Barden, an analyst with Bloom Energy by day, was a debater years ago at Los Gatos High School.
Stresses and failures aside, debaters say their efforts yield many rewards.
"It helps you think on your feet and it helps you with critical thinking," said Paly sophomore Allen Zheng, who's been debating since his freshman year.
"If your opponent says something completely out of the box, it helps you adapt to different situations that are unpredictable, which is kind of a life skill, I guess."
For Gunn junior Jeremy Neff, who also participates in school drama, debate has boosted confidence in his ability to "speak fluently, make sense and deliver it well."
Many debaters say the debate mindset offers benefits that spill over to writing.
"Once you've done it for awhile, it's really good when you have to formulate an argument and support it with specific points — like on standardized test or essays," Paly junior Alex Carter said.
For the non-jocks, "Debate lets you be competitive, without a sport," Paly sophomore Ana Carano notes.
And then there's the pure camaraderie.
"There's this huge network of people — adults, high schoolers, middle schoolers alike that you become connected to," Paly's Datta said.
"There's this really strong bond among you because you just really love this activity."
If you're "lucky" in debate, "You get to meet students from across the nation who are your peers, to establish a social network of people genuinely interested in the same things you're interested in," Paly senior Lucas Chan said. "You can ask them for help at any time, talk about any argument." He said he's made debate friends from Florida, Texas, Washington, D.C., and New York.
"Without debate I would've missed out on the really different perspectives everyone has. Palo Alto's a great place, but it's not representative of the entirety of the United States."
Gunn Debate Club President Andrew Liu, who also edits the school's political magazine, The Chariot, and is a standout in national science competitions, said he first took a speaking class in sixth grade to overcome a fear of public speaking.
"I gave a speech about an hourglass — about not wasting time, using every second as preciously as you can. When I did that, speaking became fun for me," Liu recalled.
"At first it was just the adrenaline speaking, getting in front of an audience and controlling the stage. And then I found out it was about more than just speaking, but also about learning things, knowing about current events, thinking logically and creatively."
Liu, who recently was named one of 300 semi-finalists nationwide in the Intel Science Talent Search for a bioinformatics project, said debate also helped him translate his science into stories people can understand.
"It helps me formulate a story of what I'm saying in my research and be able to communicate it not just to technical experts, but also to the public," he said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.