• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Scenes From a Debate Tournament

Cheering on intelligence and eloquence.


October 22, 2015

Last weekend, The Girl participated in her first debate tournament. I was there both as a parent and as a judge-in-training.

Full disclosure: when it comes to my kids, I'm wildly biased. That said, she did great. She was the only sixth grader in a group of seventh and eighth graders, but you wouldn't have noticed. She stood her ground with apparent confidence (though she admitted later that she was nervous). She spoke clearly and well, without reading. She answered questions with aplomb, and when asked a question including a big word she didn't understand, she coolly offered "I don't know what that means" and then returned to her point. It was all I could do not to cackle.

After each match -- they participated in four over the course of the day -- the teams congratulated each other in the hallway while waiting for the judges to tally scores. And it wasn't the "good game...good game..." perfunctory version that usually occurs after baseball games; in a couple of cases, one team mentioned to the other that they felt bad that one side was so much easier to argue than the other. 

And the topics weren't always easy.  They had one I thought was about right -- "abolish the penny" -- but had another about requiring European countries to accept Syrian refugees, which is pretty heady stuff for a sixth grader. (The others were sort of in-between: one about the state ending the bear hunt, and one about the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina.) She spent probably an hour a night for a week doing background research, and some prep work with me on anticipating questions. At one point, she complained that "I didn't know research could make you so exhausted," which I thought was a sign of success.

In between rounds, parents waited in the school cafeteria and passed the time chatting.  At one point someone asked about occupations, and nearly everybody there was an engineer. I was the oddball. But graduate degrees were clearly the norm. 

The demographics of the tournament were a little discouraging. Two private schools were there, and three publics. The private schools were affluent, as was one of the public schools. The second public school -- ours -- was somewhat more modest and diverse. The third was from a low-income area. The team from that school really struggled, and seemed to be largely uncoached. It's a little unsettling to see class distinctions so manifest at such an early age, though I'll admit I was glad the low-income kids were at least there. The benefits for kids from learning to speak in public and make arguments with evidence strike me as obvious, and well worth sharing.

The teams also tilted slightly male, though not overwhelmingly.  I didn't expect that.  The group of kids reminded me of the groups you'd see at Lego League meets, who also tend to be engineers' kids. 

I'm thrilled when The Boy speaks in public, which he has done both in church and with student government. He has an aw-shucks charm that wins people over, and I know the experience is good for him. But I'm especially glad to see The Girl step up. She's eleven, and for her age, she's uncommonly self-possessed.  I worry about the storms of adolescence and their effects on her self-confidence. Boys don't get a free pass on that -- I remember thirteen, and "free pass" is not the phrase that leaps to mind -- but from what I've seen, girls can really get steamrolled.  TG is a great kid, and I want her to have the confidence at fourteen that she has now.  If she learns to stand her ground now, and gets rewarded for it, I'm hoping it helps. And when the Mean Girls do what they do, having some sense of Dad in her corner, cheering her on for being smart, can't be a bad thing. 

I can't wait for the next one.


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