How Debate Team Changed My Life

Just over a year ago today, I opened my e-mail inbox to find this:

Hi guys,

I just wanted to let you know that the three of you have been selected to represent [our school] at the [SEA forensics] competition this year. You three have incredible potential and I’m really excited about working with you to grow and hone your skills over the next few months.  Congratulations and see you Thursday!

 

My first reaction, however, wasn’t a fist pump, an excited grin, or anything like that–I was mostly confused. I’d auditioned for OO and OI earlier that day, having decided that I probably wasn’t cut out for debate; I expected debate to be like every other category and have an audition–as it turned out, my performance at the informal debate practices had been my audition.

I’d just accidentally joined the debate team.

My befuddlement quickly melted into discouragement; I wasn’t very good at this whole “arguing on the spot” thing. I constantly felt like the weak link; my teammates Kyle and Aaron had a knack for thinking on their feet while also managing to be funny.

I fiddled with buttons on my shirt.

I laughed at my own jokes.

I struggled to keep up with political concepts and foreign affairs and what does the UN even do?

The only thing I really had going for me was my semi-decent ability to act like I knew what I was talking about. I was standing on a bridge, gripping the handrails and wondering how I would ever escape the waters below.

Week after week, I would mess up. I might say something that contradicted an earlier point. I might make a bad generalization. I might use a fallacy without realizing it. It got to the point where, every time I sat down after a speech, I’d lean forward and whisper, “What did I mess up this time?”

But then something changed.

It wasn’t like a Rocky montage where electric guitars blared, I lifted weights, and after 30 seconds of hardcore music I was ripped and ready to debate ISKL. Hardly. My first year, we didn’t even place–actually, the only debate we won was when the other team didn’t show up and forfeited the round–but that competition, that experience of awe and nausea and wonder, allowed me to blossom.

After the tournament, we could say nothing but compliments to one another–”You handled that POI better than I ever could have!” “Are you kidding? Your reply speech absolutely wrecked them!”

We walked away with empty hands and overflowing hearts.

Come next year, though… I was back to feeling like a weak link. After not having practiced, I was back to stuttering, filibustering, fighting to fill 5 minutes when 8 had been an easy breeze just months before–and Aaron and Andrew were just as good, if not better! Would I ever be ready for this competition?

I would be. I just needed to put my back into it.

Hours spent around coffee shop tables and Chile’s bottomless chips; late nights, 3 hour skype call histories, silence on all ends aside from small Kelley’s trombone practicing and the occasional quarter three cold sniffle. A 6 hour van ride down to KL spent hypothesizing immortality and drugs and Donald Drumpf.

Then came the early morning queasiness I’d grown all too used to–you know, it took me two years to figure out that it was nerves and not actual illness. (I still can’t eat Indian food for breakfast, though–it actually triggers debate nausea.)

If you’d told me all the work we would have to put in–if you’d told me that we would debate the two winning teams from last year, the teams we watched in jaw-drop shock and awe–I would have run the other way (I almost did when we walked through the door and saw the Great Thevesh Himself writing the prompt on the board).

But the feeling of shaking these revered idols’ hands? Of hearing them whisper “that was tough” upon sitting down after our thorough questioning? Of wishing one another good luck–as equals? Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

This year, we walked away with gleaming brazen bronze and hearts so full we were fit to burst.

It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if I told you that debate has greatly assuaged my fears of public speaking–or at least made me better at hiding that fact that I’m terrified.

But would it surprise you to hear that debate team has changed my life?

Without debate, you wouldn’t be hearing me speak like this. When I first started, I s-stuttered, said ahh and er a lot, couldn’t quite… articulate my…. thoughts. Brevity is the soul of wit–and not only was I not brief, I fidgeted and half-chuckled and was generally a very cringey person.

Additionally, I used to be really emotional. If someone couldn’t understand me in the heat of an argument, I’d start crying or yelling or say something stupid in a Hail Mary attempt to get my point across. You can’t afford to do that on the podium! I had to learn to channel my arguments through logic, not emotion. Instead of crying, I had to start thinking.

Lastly, debate has restored something I never thought I’d have–self-confidence.

As I’ve already described, my self-esteem was low. It always has been. I used to walk around the playground in elementary school singing to myself, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.” I cried after a class party because I couldn’t work up the nerve to talk to anyone–after 4 years of being their classmate! I spent so long looking like The Glass Menagerie‘s overbearing Amanda on the outside and painfully shy Laura on the inside–and debate, in part, helped me break free from that.

I can talk to other people with confidence. I can give this speech while smiling without fiddling with buttons, slouching, or banging on the desk in awkward rage. And I can sit down in a few seconds and not feel the urge to turn to someone and ask, “What did I mess up this time?”

Today, I am a confident speaker, a rational problem-solver, and an abuser of parallel structure. That last one, I owe to my beloved English teacher–and the other two, I owe to my teammates, my coaches, and those who supported me every step of the way.

Today, I look back and see that my bridge is behind me. But I can also peer into the distance and see more in front of me. I’ve crossed one. It was hard, painful, full of late nights and Indian-food-induced nausea–but it was incredible. But there are more, and I have no doubt that each of them will be just as difficult; and just as rewarding.

We all have bridges to cross. We all have things that require wise uses of our time, energy, and resources to overcome. It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in order to succeed, we must be faith stewards of our assets. Where are you putting your time and talents? What bridge could you be crossing?


Adapted from a speech I gave about how debate changed my life. This is all true, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without my amazing forensics coaches and teachers. PTL for stories of growth! 😀

Advertisements