The pressure was on. Members of the Pace Academy debate team could feel it.
“Oh, yeah. Definitely,” said 14-year-old freshman debater Victor Skenderi.
Pace’s streak was on the line. The school’s debate teams had been named state champions for the past 22 years. “Twenty-two consecutive years … and several more (before) that,” said sophomore debater Hayley Shoji, who’s 15.
At Pace, debate team members regularly saw reminders of that string of championships, a run of titles begun years before they were born. Banners hanging at the school listed years Pace’s competitive teams had won state debate titles. “Of all the sports banners at school,” Hayley said, “(the debate team banner) is the most full.”
So here they were, a sophomore and three freshmen called upon to defend their school’s longstanding debate dominance. They were among dozens of top Georgia high school debaters gathered at to compete at Marist School in Brookhaven Feb. 5 and 6. Twenty-five teams, some from as far away as Warner Robins and Cairo in South Georgia, took part in the competition.
Pace finished tops among single-A schools, but the state championship in its division went to Grady High School, said Pace public speaking and global politics teacher Shunta Jordan, a former high school and college debater who’s coached Pace’s debate teams for five years. Marist was cited as the top 4-A team, but the overall championship among large schools went to Chattahoochee High School, Jordan said.
Jordan said the members of her team weren’t too upset by the loss. After all, the team this year was young: one sophomore, Hayley, and three freshmen. An upper classman who had been scheduled to compete had been forced to withdraw because of illness, she said.
“They’re disappointed because it ended the streak,” she said. “But, considering the situation, they performed pretty well.”
During the two-day competition, four-member teams representing each of 25 schools were scheduled to debate a half-dozen times. Two team members would argue in favor of the resolution up for debate and two would argue against. This year’s debate subject was whether the federal government should do more to help the poor.
Points accumulated by each team would be totaled and a pair of state champions crowned – one from among the 4A and 5A schools in the competition and another from the 1A, 2A and 3A schools. One debate official described the two groups simply as the “big fish” and “little fish” schools.
The team from Pace and the team from The Westminster Schools in Atlanta competed in the small schools division. Host Marist competed among the big schools.
Before the debates began, teams gathered in Marist’s dining hall to wait. Signs cheered them on: “Go Fight Win Debate!” Once pairings were announced for the first round, debaters headed to classrooms, where they met their competitors and their judges.
In the first round, Hayley and teammate Paula Cheng faced a pair of boys from Cairo High School. James Roland, their judge, took a seat at a desk in the back of the room. During the debate, they would direct their remarks to Roland, a debate coach at Emory University, who would listen, take notes and grade their performances. “I am the audience of one,” Roland said.
The students brought in plastic storage boxes filled with files of data to support their arguments. Throughout the debate, they rifled through sheets of typed notes or checked laptops to look for more material to use in their arguments.
They also talked very, very fast. Talking fast allowed them to get in more arguments within the allotted time periods. They read as fast as they could from printed cards, slowing only to catch a breath now and then. At times, they sounded like auctioneers at a cattle sale. It took a trained ear to understand anything they said. “When I was watching debates in middle school,” Paula said, “I didn’t get any of it.”
Roland apparently got every word. He carefully took notes on each point and counterpoint. The idea behind competitive debate, he and others said, is to teach students how to research material, prepare their arguments and think on their feet.
Andrew Roberts of Brookhaven, a 16-year-old Marist sophomore, said he thought taking part in debates would help him learn to better express himself.
“I want to be a politician,” Roberts said. “So it’s something that helps out.”
Besides, he said, “it’s fun.”
Debaters also get to travel. Teams from Pace and Marist compete in tournaments scattered across the country, from Boston to California. Roberts said he’d been to 10 tournaments and competed in Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky and North Carolina.
After that, did debating back in Georgia seem something of a letdown? Not at all, he said.
“It’s state. It’s big,” he said.
Besides, it was at Marist, his own school.
“They’re kind of on our turf now,” he said. “It’s definitely more pressure.”
As for the Pace team, there’s always next year. “Of course,” Jordan said, “I can’t guarantee we’ll win next year.”
But they’ll take their shot.
“We’ll just give it our all,” Jordan said, “and see what happens.”