The Great Debaters

Ms. H

They had prepared for weeks. They were more than motivated to participate in the debate in Jackson – they were driven to succeed at it. They had pored over articles, written cases, rebutted and crossfired, assembled summaries and delivered final focuses, practiced and judged for their peers.  They were ready when Saturday rolled around.

On Friday afternoon, we set aside a few hours for inspiration. The lights dimmed, we sat down for a screening of The Great Debaters, one of my all-time favorite movies. The Denzel Washington movie tells the story of a handful of black debaters from Wiley College in Texas who, under the guidance of coach Melvin Tolson, go on to challenge and ultimately prevail over Harvard’s debate team.

Watching the Great Debaters

For my students in Sunflower County, the film’s focus on education, segregation, and discrimination hit home. For them, the color line is more than what DuBois’s problem of the 20th century – it is a 21st century reality. The median strip that runs in front of the Freedom Project, the same median we use as our lunchtime soccer field, still separates the white and black households in the Town of Sunflower. Growing up in a community that can seem mired in the past, the students had reason to cheer at the line: “the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!”

The next day, on the road to Jackson, our students returned to one of their favorite quotes from the movie, a call-and-response between coach and students.

Our students spent four weeks preparing for Public Forum debate, in which two teams of two partners each square off over some issue of contemporary significance. They use facts, research, statistics, and authoritative sources to persuade a judge to vote for their side – either PRO or CON. The topic for our Freedom Project debate was an actual nationwide Public Forum topic from a few years ago: “Resolved: The costs of a college education outweigh the benefits.” Yes, these students, who all aspire to attend college themselves, had to prepare to argue for both sides of the issue.

Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect, the debate feels like a flurry of activity punctuated by periods of intense listening. I’m going to share a few impressions from the big day.

Growth emerged as one of the key themes of the day, and one student in particular stands out for all the ways he grew. In class, Mr. N can be frustrating and disruptive. He has a good heart and an inquisitive mind, but he spends too much time trying to be cool. When I push him to use his time wisely or to stop talking with his friends, he usually replies: “C’mon man, chill out!”

In the week leading up to the debate, however, Mr. N carried himself with increasing diligence. On the ride to the tournament, Mr. N asked me to help him polish his cases and prepare a few questions for the crossfire (Public Forum’s word for a back-and-forth cross examination period). I was ecstatic. We spent the entire two-hour ride working together.

Mr. N and I confer

In the rounds, Mr. N first appeared reserved – his hands in his pockets, his voice at a low volume, his posture betraying a lack of confidence – but as the day went on, I could see his confidence growing. His speeches became longer and louder, his focus more apparent, his note-taking more furious.

In the championship round, after Mr. N’s team had been eliminated, we sat together in the audience. While the debaters were using their prep time to write their next speeches, Mr. N would whisper in my ear: “Mr. King – those guys just did what I did in the last round…using personal evidence…they should know better!” I have never seen him so invested in his own learning (and so dedicated to his peers’ success too).

Mr. N and his partner prepare a rebuttal
Mr. N and his partner prepare a rebuttal

In one round, Mr. N was asked what he meant by the American Dream. He replied: “It is the American Dream that everyone should become someone in their life.” I hope he lives into his own definition of the dream.

The debate had its comic moments too. Mr. H was making a point about how a college degree signals one’s ability to work hard when he said:

It’s like this. My stepdad owns a store. When he’s hiring, is he going to pick an American or an Asian? He’s going to pick the Asian! Why is he going to pick the Asian? Because Asians work really hard.

Mr. H digs a hole for himself
Mr. H digs a hole for himself

Needless to say, we had to have a discussion with Mr. H about stereotypes…

Also, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my mom. She flew all the way from Richmond to Jackson just to see her son’s debate team in action. Although I would never let her sit in on my debate rounds in high school, in a sense she got to see me debate this weekend. I hope she heard my love of debate echo in my students’ voices.

Photo credit: Sydney McAuliffe
Walking with mom in Mississippi (Photo credit: Sydney McAuliffe)

For those of you wondering about the fate of Ms. R and Ms. C from the last post, I have good news for you. Both attended the debate. Each placed in the top third of debaters based on their “speaker points” score – a ranking of their eloquence and reasoning.

Ms. C and her partner broke to the championship round. As the round concluded, Ms. C presented her Final Focus – a closing speech in which she made a final appeal to the judge that the benefits of a college education outweigh the costs – which she began by asserting:

Strong individuals do not let anything stand in between themselves and their success . . . If you want something, you strive and work hard to get it, no matter how many challenges are . . . along the road. There is no such thing as too much education – building your knowledge one step ahead is always a good and positive thing to do.

Ms. C gives her Final Focus
Ms. C gives her Final Focus

I couldn’t have been more proud of her. Ms. C dominated during crossfires and made use of every second at her disposal. She didn’t stop with a compelling Final Focus, though. After the debate, she wrote me the following message:

Mr. King,

I can 100% say I was going to bail out of the debate. I was stressed agitated, annoyed nearly all of the above yet we pulled through. The talks that we had only made me confused but I think it was your first experience to encourage me. I always say, “I’m a pro at imperfections and I’m best friends with my doubt” yet I went against my thought and even won 3rd place! Thanks for your support!

Gratitude means a lot to me, but impact means more. Even if Ms. C had never thanked me, her outstanding Final Focus would have been thank you enough. Moments like that, added up over the course of the day, give me reason to count that Saturday among the happiest days of my life.

I’ll close with a quote from one of my students after the debate: “I feel like I can debate the great debaters now.”

After a round


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