I was a sophomore in high school when Lloyd Bentsen said, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” to Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debate. That was quite the zinger for that time. For better or worse, it shaped my opinion on how to win a debate. So, as the presidential debates were aired last fall, I couldn’t help but wonder (and worry) what tactics would be takeaways for today’s teens.
Indignant interruptions? Pugnacious pivots? Celebratory shimmies? I’m proud to report that none of these has been incorporated by the Rogers High School speech and debate team. Actually, student Kathryn Martin may have put on a slight shimmy as it was announced that she had bested school board member Paul Schneider at a recent event.
On the evening of Jan. 17, students, parents, educators and others gathered in the Howard Street Gym for “Rhetoric in the Ring III: Students vs. School Board.” This showcase event has paired Rogers High School students against Spokane City Council members, state senators and, most recently, Spokane Public Schools board members Paul Schneider and Robert Douthitt, who lost his match to student William Lynch.
Unlike last year’s presidential debates, there were no claims of malfunctioning microphones or leaked questions. Once again, the kids and their competitors outclassed much of what we see from candidates for high office. And we hold our debate in a boxing ring!
Rogers debate coach Cara Heath and I created “Rhetoric in the Ring” a few years ago, because debate students deserve the opportunity to shine as much as sports stars. Spokane schools have produced athletes John Stockton, Ryne Sandberg and Mark Rypien, but they are also responsible for statesmen Tom Foley, Ron Sims and Sam Reed. And I promise that Coach Heath is every bit as passionate as legendary Rogers coaches Jim Paton (baseball) and Ken Pelo (wrestling).
Our goal is to celebrate high school debate. The event is a real crowd-pleaser because, ever so reluctantly, elected officials literally step into the ring with students, knowing they are likely to suffer lightning-quick verbal jabs and knockout closing statements.
However, the real action is at the interscholastic debate tournaments that take place all around our region this time of year. In fact, the Southside Invitational is taking place at Ferris High School on Saturday. The network news fact-checkers could go home early if they covered that debate. The kids know their stuff.
Teens from all over the Spokane area are arguing topics such as how to force China to trade fairly, how much U.S. military spending is best and how to balance free speech and safety on college campuses. Sure, like most teens, debaters are constantly on their smartphones, but they are as likely to be researching trade statistics as tweeting.
Parents and others who watch these debates leave knowing that our future society actually has a chance with these motivated and thoughtful students, who will one day be making policy decisions for us all. At a minimum, debate students are bravely developing the confidence to combat one of the top fears for many people: public speaking.
Whatever continued field of study and/or work they pursue, forensics will play a large part in all of our students’ futures. Debaters will have an advantage. And that’s just not debatable.
Jim Hedemark is a founder and volunteer organizer of “Rhetoric in the Ring.”
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