I Was a Master Debater

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rr8Actually, my first foray into the world of speech and debate was on the speech side of the equation. There were literally dozens of different event categories in which one could compete. Kevin Tomb and I were in the Extemporaneous Speaking category. At a tournament, you walk up to a table with a bunch of slips of paper on it, randomly choose one, turn it over to see what current event topic is listed on it, take 30 minutes to prepare, and then deliver a 7-minute speech on that topic.

This would have gone much better for me in those days if I’d had the time to keep up-to-date on current events, but I was involved in way too many extra-curricular activities for that. Or I could have gone overboard like so many of our competitors, some of whom would actually come in with filing cabinets on wheels full of articles covering every imaginable topic, meticulously organized and at their fingertips. Kevin and I would typically walk in with a handful of magazines each – Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report. Needless to say, sometimes I did well and other times I totally bombed.

I eventually switched over to the debate team. My older brother Joe was a senior and the rest of us were juniors. Joe’s partner was Scott Field (Maines at that time), while Chuck Wurster was my partner. Every high school debate team in 1984-1985 were debating the following resolution:

Resolved: That the federal government should provide employment for all employable United States citizens living in poverty.

In debate competition, you have to be prepared to argue for or against the resolution as determined by the flip of a coin. Under the guidance of our coach, English teacher Greg Smith, we came up with what we thought was a very innovative plan for the affirmative side arguments. The plan was to revive the Civilian Conservation Corps – put people to work on projects that would preserve the nation’s natural resources and heritage. It was brilliant. And Mexico was going to pay for it (okay, that was not part of the plan).

We competed in two different leagues – the Pennsylvania High School Speech League (PHSSL) and the Catholic Forensic League (CFL). PHSSL was only a state-wide league, but CFL was a national competition. As a result, we went to quite a few different tournaments. There were times when this involved the four of us showing up at the then very run-down Dimeling Hotel downtown and pounding on Mr. Smith’s door until we got him out of bed. Good old Mr. Smith. He was a carefree, pot-smoking kind of guy, but he definitely had the smarts to coach our debate team. We’d pile into his crappy VW van and off we went.

The debate team was a relatively recent creation at Clearfield High School in those days. This was maybe only its second or third year. I don’t recall how we did that year in PHSSL, but we killed it in CFL. I’ll be the first to admit that Joe and Scott were the better team, but somehow Chuck and I wound up as state champions. I was stunned. Joe and Scott came in either second or third, I don’t recall which. But the upshot was that both CHS debate teams made it to the national tournament held in Fort Lauderdale FL. I don’t even recall how we did there – I think both teams were eliminated fairly early on.

So there we were, a new intellectual extra-curricular activity (a feat in and of itself) and within a few years we made it to nationals! Impressive, right? The following year, the team was cut from the school district budget and eliminated altogether. Maybe it was for the best. I’ve heard that master debaters go blind.

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