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! 😀

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A Ravenclaw’s Guide to Finals Week

Finally.

The weeks of tea, late nights, frantic note-taking, and falling asleep on random people in the common room is over. I finally finished taking my Sickeningly Awful Testing exam (SATs) and let me tell you–our entire house is beyond relieved. When they say Ravenclaws are intelligent, they’re not lying. But that also means there’s a ton of pressure on everyone to get Es on our exams, since we’re supposedly really clever. Well, clever doesn’t always mean intelligent (I didn’t feel very confident on the Arithmancy sections, but then again I never have excelled in that area), but when everyone around you is studying like their life depends on it, you tend to get some death glares when you’re caught scrolling through Reddit. So I studied too and did fairly well on everything.

However, as one of the Ravenclaws who falls more under the “creative” label of our house rather than “clever,” I didn’t always make the greatest study decisions. I stressed out and ended up cramming a lot during the end instead of preparing well, so as a result I lost sleep and didn’t take care of myself really well. So here’s a reflection to help any exam-takers (whether you’re attending a magic school or a regular public one) the next time you have a big test coming up.


 

1. Start studying as early as possible. We had people in year 7 studying for NEWTs like two months before their tests, and a few of my room mates started cracking open to older sections in textbooks to start reviewing a few weeks later. It’s always, always better to start studying as early as you can. Next year, I’m planning on taking really detailed notes and studying on a regular basis to keep up my memory. (Especially American Muggle Studies… Professor Sasse gives awful tests.)

2. Figure out what actually helps you to study–not what people say will help you study. I grew up taking lame “study skills” classes once a week before I transferred to Hogwarts, and they all tell you the exact same things. “Make flash cards, listen to recordings, watch videos, read the text book, take good notes…” That’s not bad advice, obviously. It’s just advice that literally everyone has heard before. And that’s a problem, because the fantastic truth is that every single person is an individual and studies differently.

What does that look like for me? Well, I study better alone, at a clean desk, with a mug of tea. The way I study to remember the information is usually re-writing the material into detailed notes and making flashcards for things I need to memorize. Others study better with other people to keep them on track, or they might do better re-reading the textbook cover to cover. Some like to make colorful charts or find online videos and songs with the information they need to remember. Experiment a little and find something that makes you feel the most confident and knowledgeable. If you’re walking into tests truly worried about how you’re going to do, you’re doing it wrong.

3. Make a plan. This might be something that mostly helps me, because I’m a very list-oriented person, but making a schedule or list of all the things you need to study is really important. If you just say, “Oh, I need to study for Potions,” and then you sit down at your desk with your book and cauldron, you’re going to have a pretty foggy idea of what studying for Potions actually entails. Pay attention to what you’ve been struggling with in class, and take that list into your study session. Practice and study what you normally forget, and give yourself permission to skip over things you already know pretty well. You can come back to them if you’re still worried, but start with the hard stuff and then move on once you’ve got it down.

4. Actually stick to the plan. Here’s where you have to hold yourself accountable to actually sitting down and using the study methods you know work for you. This step is about getting rid of distractions and actually making time to study.

I tend to be distracted by a lot of internet-related things: Tumblr, Facebook, DeviantArt… In the past, I’ve actually gotten someone to change my passwords for me so that I don’t log in at all. It’s very annoying, but very motivating. Turning off internet or blocking access to certain sites is also really good. I use a Chrome extension called StayFocusd, which will give you a certain number of minutes to browse blocked sites and will then shut you out from them when time’s up.

Additionally, just getting away from the distractions is the best option. Whenever I’m on a computer, distraction is inevitable at some point–I like having my notes on paper so that I can take them somewhere computer-free to study. The best way to get rid of distractions is for me to sprawl out on my bed with a textbook, my notes, and some colorful pens; do whatever you need to to get away from procrastination temptations–which leads me to my next point.

5. Location is key. Some people study best in their room, surrounded by books and other comforts of home. Others like to study at their desk where they usually do homework. Sometimes a simple change of surroundings will get you in the mood–perhaps moving from your desk to your dining room table. Other times, though, you need a drastic change of scenery. Whenever I’m feeling particularly unproductive, I like to grab a few friends and go to Hogsmeade to get a mug of butterbeer and sit down to study. Coffee shops and cafes are perfect study environments.

6. Don’t stress yourself out! I see this all the time when NEWTs roll around–7th years begin having panic attacks in the Ravenclaw common room staring as far back as March. You’re never going to retain information when your body is pumping adrenaline in a fight-or-flight response; if you’ve followed all of these tips (or even if you haven’t) the best way to study is to just relax and just do it. What’s done is done, and there’s no need to stress over what you can’t do when it’s more productive to plan out what you can.


 

I wish you the best of luck in your own revising endeavors! You don’t have to be a Ravenclaw to do well on your exams–you just have to have determination and organization. So what are you waiting for? Pace yourself, get organized, and get studying! Oh, and make a cup of tea while you’re at it. It helps more than you’d think. 😉

Are You Settling for Mediocrity?

Today, on my first day of school as a high school junior, I realized a rather shocking thing. I’ve settled for being mediocre.

I probably should have realized this earlier. For one, I was allowing myself to feel happy with a lower grade than I knew I could get. I was also handing in things late and just generally not doing what I knew I could do. But I’d justified my less-then-great performance for so long, telling myself that since everyone else was getting a B or even C in the class that my B+ was extraordinary and those over-achieving straight-A-ers were just working themselves too hard, that I soon succumbed: I set the bar lower and lower until one day–today–I took a step back and saw just how little I was letting myself achieve. Continue reading