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The Girl had her final Jersey Shore Debate League tournament on Saturday. (She has nationals in May, but this was the last in-league tournament.) She starts high school next year, so this was her swan song for a league devoted entirely to junior high school students.

I served as a judge, as I have at every tournament in the last three years. I even trained another judge, my second, so I can feel like I’ve done my duty to keep the league rolling. 

The tournament consists of four rounds. I usually serve as a judge in two of them, so I get to watch TG in the other two. This time, due to training, I worked three rounds, and only got to see her in one. But she made her point.

I got to watch her in the second round. After the debate, the judge typically sends the participants and spectators out in the hallway while she tallies up the scores. As we were waiting, I told her, truthfully, that I wanted to send out a tweet saying “actual footage from TG’s closing statement,” and attach a GIF of someone using a flamethrower to lay waste to an entire landscape. And she did it the way it’s supposed to be done: calmly, eloquently, with logic, poetry, and wit.

She knew it, too. There’s no mistaking that smile.

Each team is typically three students. Her teammates have improved significantly, as has she. The first time I saw Teammate 1, she couldn’t stop playing with her hair when she spoke, and every other word was “um.” By this tournament, though, she was composed, thoughtful, and confident. Teammate 2 has always been good, though sometimes so amped up that he’d lose track of himself. This time he was able to harness that energy and use it to focus, to excellent effect. And TG left it all on the field, knowing that this was her last time in this league.

She has come a long way. When we moved here, she was about to start sixth grade. Her school has a debate club with an advisor, a social studies teacher, who is exactly what you’d want in a junior high club advisor. He’s approachable, funny, a little nerdy, and encouraging. TG immediately took to him, and the club. It’s the kind of group that beatboxes on the bus to tournaments, freestyling about Dr. Who.  (“What rhymes with tardis?”)

He invited her to participate in her first tournament in her first semester of sixth grade. I went along and got trained as a judge. Her first few matches weren’t pretty; she didn’t use her full time, and easily got flustered when heckled.  (They allow heckling, but with parameters.) But she has always been good at taking feedback and using it to improve. She got better with each tournament.  By the end of sixth grade, she was pretty good. By the end of seventh grade, she won her first Golden Gavel (the award given to the speaker with the most points at the entire tournament).  This Fall she won her second, and on Saturday, her third. And in the round I saw, she gave the single best performance I’ve ever seen a middle school debater give. Yes, I’m biased, but I’ve never seen a thirteen year old speak like that.  At the end of the day, the judge of her last round approached us with tears in her eyes, saying that she had never seen a student speak as well as TG, and that she’ll miss her terribly. It’s not just me.

I share this not merely because I’m proud of her -- although I am, without apology -- but because I’ve seen the incredible improvement in her and her teammates.  And with one telling, recent exception, I haven’t seen it in the body politic.

The exception that gives me hope is the Parkland high school students. After the massacre, they have been eloquent, forceful, galvanizing, and heartening in their ability to call us to our better selves. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they had years of training in debate. When the time came for them to step into the limelight and speak truth, they could. They knew how. And even though most of them are still too young to vote, they’ve already moved a policy debate farther than generations of adults ever have.

TG gets the point. She took it upon herself to organize this week’s walkout at her school. She spoke to the principal herself to pick a spot for the students to gather, and to ensure that they wouldn’t get in trouble.  She made the announcement to her own homeroom, and wasn’t the least bit hesitant to stand up and speak in front of them. She sees work to be done, so she’s doing it.  As she has explained to me, after doing years of debate, speaking to a class is easy.

She’s using her powers for good.  I could not be prouder.

Here’s hoping the world has the good sense to listen.

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