Raising Their Voices

Can a year spent learning to debate change a student's life? For these Baltimore kids, there's no argument.

Ideas: Academia

June 18, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

The 15-year-old girl they call "Mouse," cheeks flushed the same hue as her bright pink shirt, stands before 40 pairs of staring eyes.

When they read her name -- Heather Thompson, Patterson High School -- she loves being half of one of the day's best teams in Baltimore's Urban Debate League.

And she hates being up here in front of everybody.

She's the girl who would never raise her hand in class, then turn in the kinds of papers teachers dream of seeing. The girl her coaches had to drag into this brand-new debate program last fall in an effort to draw her out.

Now it's February, and she is in the final round of a tournament, up against some cocky boys from Northwestern High.

Just as Heather is about to speak, a boy approaches the podium and hands her a yellow Kleenex. Everybody laughs. Heather's known for crying when things get rough.

Today, though, she laughs with them.

Then her words -- an argument in favor of single-sex public schools -- tumble out at warp speed, auctioneer-style.

"Bias-and-its-effect-on-self-esteem-is-disastrous."

"Girls-are-more-likely-to-attempt-suicide."

As she speaks, she discreetly crumples the tissue and pushes it aside.

Facing off

This is policy debate -- as nerdy, and usually as private-school preppy, as it gets. It's not what you expect to find at public high schools such as Patterson, Northwestern or Walbrook, schools that have never had their own debate programs before.

But debate caught the eye of philanthropist George Soros, the international financier whose Open Society Institute looks for ways to expand the horizons of inner-city kids. Open Society began funding leagues around the country -- in New York, St. Louis, Tuscaloosa, Kansas City, Chicago and now in Baltimore, where nine city high schools fielded teams this school year.

First the students learned about debate at a two-week summer program. Then they went up against each other in monthly tournaments, held on Saturdays in their otherwise empty, cavernous schools.

Dramatic readings of "I Have a Dream" this is not. This is highly competitive debate with rules as rigid as the law, inscrutable to all except those who find it utterly fascinating.

Here's how it works: Debaters begin with a "resolution," a topic used in debate competition across the nation. This year it called for debaters to establish a plan to improve academic achievement in the nation's public secondary schools -- no easy feat, as these kids know.

Before a debate judge, an "affirmative" team of two argues for a plan, perhaps creating single-sex schools or forcing students to wear uniforms. Then a two-person "negative" team attacks the proposal, trying to convince the judge that it won't solve problems and could create new ones.

Debate can get arcane. A team has to back up its case with facts and identify "harms" the plan will solve. Disadvantages, or problems raised by opponents, are "DAs" or "disads." Arguments get so twisted that a debater could end up arguing, for example, that it would be best for the environment if a war wiped out every polluting human.

The debaters learn to breathe so their sentences tumble in one breath to the judge's ears. Then they're cross-examining with attitude, one hip thrust out, rolling their eyes or, deadliest of all, being sugary-sweet while shredding opponents with questions.

The first year of Baltimore's debate league saw its share of negatives and affirmatives: Douglass lost its coach for part of the year. Some promising debaters drifted off, and some schools barely held on to their teams.

But over the past nine months, a "preacher" named Devrin Lindsay captivated a new congregation. A pregnant girl named Brandi Weldon gave birth to her own voice.

And a Mouse named Heather roared.

Waiting for a spark

The students who take up debating and stay with it have a common bond. As a group, they're neither the top performers in school nor the worst. They're the ones who have kept their teachers awake at night, the ones with a spark that hasn't caught fire.

They are kids like Brandi, a senior at Walbrook High, who learned at the beginning of the school year -- after a coach cajoled her into debate -- that she was pregnant. Still, she became captain of her school's debate team. And she would use the research skills she learned from debate to stay at Walbrook, showing administrators they couldn't force her to go across town to a school for expectant teens.

They're kids like Devrin Lindsay, a charismatic Frederick Douglass High School junior better known as "The Preacher." When his coach got sick in the middle of the year, he would step forward to lead his team.

And Jared Jackson, an easygoing Walbrook senior who was on the verge of signing up for the Army last summer to pay for college. A coach talked him into debate instead.

There are sassy girls like Lynnet Moore, a fast-talking, take-no-prisoners junior from Northwestern who has a wildcat, for the Northwestern Wildcats, tattooed on her right triceps.

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