On my first day of high school, I walked up to my history teacher (who, through extensive research, I had discovered to be the debate coach) and said, “I want to join the debate team. Where do I sign up?” I always hear my friends’ stories of unknowingly walking into a meeting, maybe even being roped in by enthusiastic classmates, with no understanding of what awaited them. But me? My intentions were clear as day- it was what would come after that I never could have imagined. Debate opens doors. Doors to friends, activism, politics, better essays, more confidence- whatever it is, debate probably helps with it.
But anyone who knows me can probably tell you that my journey as a Congressional debater wasn’t without some major obstacles along the way. I had a stellar sophomore year competitively; I broke at every tournament, shattered even my own expectations, and was on a spectacular upward trajectory. Over the summer, however, I started to question that. Come junior year, I would no longer be the really impressive sophomore who had a pretty solid showing in semis. I was entering the major league: upper-classmen territory, where being “good” meant top 6, maybe finals. I wish I could tell you that I went into Rocky-mode, prepped day and night, gave practice speeches every morning, and came out on top- because, frankly, I didn’t. I was scared I had peaked, worried about how it would look and feel if I didn’t live up to the expectations I had for myself, fearful that I could never be truly great. A coach from my district implanted further doubt in my mind, telling my coach that I was too short, too feminine, and my voice too high-pitched for me to be able to further succeed in an event that’s meant to reflect the actual Congress- one which lacks diversity and projects the old, white man as the ideal legislator.
So I switched to Oratory. I did fine, won some locals, got a bid- but I felt lonely and empty. I wasn’t doing the event I loved and was passionate about, the event that gave me fire and made me excited and helped me understand the world and my place in it. I was away from my friends in Congress, people who I deeply empathized with. I remember going to tournaments and comparing the Congress schedule with the speech schedule, trying to figure out times that I could sneak over to see them and still run back to round on time. Apart from the improved sleep schedule and self-care that Oratory afforded me, I was miserable. I knew I wasn’t in the right place, even though, quite frankly, I was doing comparatively better. I made what I thought was a temporary decision to try out Congress again, and (surprise!) it stuck.
Do I feel like switching to oratory hindered my progress in Congress? Honestly, yes. I missed out on so many tournaments, so much practice, and so much exposure. I found myself falling behind peers who I had consistently ranked over in the past. But, while I may not be as high up on the rankings as I hoped and expected when I started out, I couldn’t care less. This year, I realized the most important thing debate has taught me: that, at the end of the day, speech and debate in and of itself doesn’t matter all that much. The world and our futures are so vast, and it’s easy to focus on one activity alone and to let it define who we are and how successful we deem ourselves as having been. But what’s any of that for?
I took the fall off from debate this year. I worked on a Congressional campaign, fine-tuned my college applications, concentrated on my schoolwork, and did some semi-normal high school things. Did that hurt my debate standings? Hell yeah it did. Do I care? Not one bit. I got into my dream school, did really well in my classes, spent much-needed time with my friends, and went to some pretty awesome political events. But when I got to introduce Nancy Pelosi at a fundraiser? You bet I used every one of the skills I learned from debate. In a few years, I’ll forget how I placed at every tournament. I’ll have absolutely no idea how anybody was ranked in the nation. But, in 10, 20, 30 years, I will remember the skills this event has taught me, that I have and will continue to use in the future. I’ll remember the forever-friends I made, and how they stood by me when all hell broke loose. I’ll remember late nights and long road trips with my team. And that night I accidentally fell asleep on FaceTime with my coach and forgot to prep for Yale semis? That’ll be a funny memory too. But, most of all, I’ll remember the person I was through all of it. Whether or not I was genuinely nice to that underclassman in my prelim. Whether or not I took part in malicious gossiping about other, really nice people in my event who just happened to be the target of those on top. Whether I took a few minutes out of my prep time to explain how something works to a new competitor. Whether or not I ever stuck my nose in the air and thought I was in any way better than someone who hadn’t reached a similar level of competitive success.
When I graduate, I know I won’t be remembered as the best debater of my time. But I seriously hope I can earn the legacy of being one of the nicest, one of the most supportive, accepting, helpful, or maybe even one of the most sportsmanlike. Debate doesn’t last forever, but a lot of things do. I can confidently say for myself, and hopefully others will agree, that I am much prouder to know (or to have been) the person known to always prioritize making others feel good than the person who won every national circuit tournament.