Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I considered myself privileged. I attended a high school jam packed with resources; my parents worked stable full time jobs, and they provided me with a roof over my head, food at the dinner table, and clothes to keep me warm in the winter. When I joined debate, I joined for the same reason many other ambitious students with Asian tiger moms did: college. This academic team constituted my futile effort in making up for a lack of an athletic sport. Who knew I would end up accidentally falling in love. I really did – even up until this day, I truly enjoy the act of debating. I love logic, picking out warrants, appealing to the judge – and more than anything, I love that debate forced me to think. Debate was fun, as it should be.
Yet sometimes, I now wonder: if I knew what I know now, would I have joined the debate team at Randolph?
Let me set the scene: going into my senior year, I was the single varsity Lincoln Douglas debater on my team. I traveled alone to tournaments, paid for my flights and lodging independently, dragged my dad from work every weekend to judge for me, and forced myself to seek out friends on the circuit. I took on a part time job as a waitress at a local pizzeria to pay for finance expenses, going to extreme means to convince my parents the costs of debate were worth it. At tournaments, I felt strongly excluded from the majority of teams with bountiful of students, each helping each other prep and scout rounds. Many times at tournaments, I found myself awkwardly walking in circles, pretending I was on my cell phone, when in truth, I was just unsure of who to talk to. You have probably never heard of Randolph AP. I wasn’t particularly successful, breaking somewhat consistently my senior year, but not reaching a level that I had wanted.
More often than not, I think we address the benefits, the positives, and successes of debate. I agree: debate helps students develop top level critical thinking skills, persuasive speaking fluency, and educates students on topics ranging from current news to deep philosophy. However, even when we do confront issues within the activity head on, we tend to do so circumspectly, tiptoeing around issues by using buzzwords, engaging in a form of slacktivism. It’s necessary that we just come to terms with the truth: competitive debate is a violent space. The prevailing debate culture consists of each-man-for-themselves, a culture where elitism is consistently rewarded and supported, where cliques are formed and borders are stuck.
I can clearly remember the watershed round which made me aware of how dangerous debate could be: in my sophomore year - I faced a boy from a well-known school, who had a reputation as an upcoming star debater with a bid already under his belt, and he invited a few of his friends from other schools to watch in the back of the room without asking for my permission. Already shaking from nervousness, I crumbled under the pressure and stuttered, speaking unclearly and unable to articulate many of my arguments. And every time I made a faulty argument, his friends in the back laughed at me. Why didn’t I just call them out and ask them to leave? It wasn’t possible – I was frozen in the activity. I felt weak, outnumbered. I was worried they would be angry at me for asking them to leave, for calling them out. I didn’t want to make a scene.
Too many times I found myself at the edge of the activity, one step away from walking out. Too many times I found myself crying, not over the losses, but from the impacts on my psychological health. Too many times I have witnessed my friends work all-nighters, cutting prep and doing drills, only to lose on nuances caused by stress. The debate circuit is not only unwelcome to debaters who are “not good” – the jealousy, the condescension, the active exclusion is more than enough to push a newcomer from leaving.
I felt alone.
Why then, do I still put so much time in an activity that made me feel so weak?
I found people. People in the activity who gave me reasons to stay, people in the activity who provided me with enough love and support that at times, I forgot I was a lone debater, people who I eventually talked to during the time I used to spend walking in circles, people who went to my out rounds and treated me as their own team member. Like a lost puppy, I was taken into Stuyvesant’s home; it is an undeniable truth that had I not found such people, I would not be writing this today. A simple invite to dinner at a noodle restaurant is enough to keep a lone debater in the activity. I should note here that my coach coached me out of pure kindness and demanded no pay. For that, I am truly forever grateful. As violent, damaging, and unfair competitive debate can be, debate can also be healing, unifying, surprising, and filled with pure and genuine compassion.
I know there are other debaters out there with experiences similar to mine. There are other debaters who had to fight just to attend tournaments, who had to go to out rounds themselves with their opponent’s teams sitting in the back of the room, who had to convince their coach that debating is something even worth doing. The inequality within the activity – from being able to afford camp to afford travel to just be strong enough to engage with others – is too great; it’s a problem I can’t just leave behind.
My greatest takeaway has been an understanding of the real world – a more realistic, though pessimistic, outlook. I am privileged, but even I have experienced how much inequality can greatly impact one’s health and success. Today, I want nothing more than to pass on what I’ve learned. In the same way the round I experienced sophomore year changed my opinion, my experience with my private coach, who provided me with unconditional support and encouragement, gave me hope and a new perspective. I have a genuine passion in helping underfunded, small school debaters reach their full capabilities; it is so absolutely significant that students with potential are able to succeed. My hope is that one day, I can reach out to as many underprivileged students as possible.