Friday, March 3, 2017

National Speech and Debate Day

I did not know this (after all, I've only got a finite amount of mental RAM, and most of it is taken up with whisky trivia and strong opinions about barbeque), but today is National Speech and Debate Education Day. As you may or may not have known this as well, and may or may not know the impact that it has on truly thousands of students' lives every single year, I wanted to take a bit of time away from working on my doctoral thesis proposal to list out a few:

To get it out of the way first, there's the financial impact. Speech and debate paid for a not-unsubstantial sum of my expensive liberal arts education at Lewis & Clark College through a scholarship fund that I still happily donate to as an alum. My working as a coach made living as a college student and then as a graduate student a little more economically doable. And simply having my travel expenses paid for to travel to cities that I had never been to before--Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, San Diego, and more--was a privilege.

There's the experiential impact: The only award I've kept from my entire speech and debate career is a commemorative gavel from my senior year of college when I was invited, along with two friends on the debate circuit, to represent the United States against the Irish national debate team at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Continuing the time-honored tradition of Irish dominance at these debates, my American teammates and I got our asses kicked, but being invited to give that speech, in representation of both college and country, is a humbling experience that I will never, ever forget.

There's the interpersonal impact: I've met friends on the speech and debate circuit in both high school and college who remain good friends to this day. We would spend entire weekends arguing out in classrooms across the country over public policy and values, and today they remain valued sparring partners who tell me when I might be onto something and when I need to question my assumptions. Some of them I trust more than any pundit, any talking head, and any rando with a blog (like, say, me) to tell me what's what.

There's the impact of teaching and mentoring: I had some truly fantastic coaches in high school and college who made it their business to ensure that I was not just putting in the effort, but that I was set up to succeed. It's one thing to simply exhort someone to work harder; it is entirely another to teach them how to work *better.* And when I went into coaching myself, first for two years at Lake Oswego High School and then for two years at City College of San Francisco, I tried to emulate as many of the traits of my past coaches that I could.

There's the inner belief impact: I grew up with a speech impediment that I spent long hours in speech therapy as a child to overcome, and being able to give speeches and debate publicly was the equivalent of a quantum leap forward for my confidence and assuredness with the English language. I have no doubt that I would not be able to preach and teach the way I do today without that confidence that speech and debate gave me.

And perhaps most importantly, there's the critical analysis impact: speech and debate, quite simply, taught me how to think. It taught me how to approach scholarly evidence, how to determine credibility, how to do research, and so much more. I learned about all manner of public policy and political philosophy this way, little of which I would have learned in any other venue short of intensively reading newspapers and theory textbooks every single day.

Competing at such a high level in anything does things to you--it warps the way you live by throwing your daily life and rhythm out of balance. It gives you a different perspective on, well, living. To compete at the level I did, especially in college, took a lot out of me in early mornings, late nights, marathon tournaments and practices, and frequent cramming sessions. It had the capacity to make me very irritable, emotionally fragile, and immature. I had to grow up in a big damn hurry, and I didn't always do it well.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives. The people I have met along the way, the experiences that I carry with me, and the sheer tonnage of what I have learned of the world and its people and institutions have all shaped me profoundly for the better, creating a debt of gratitude to an academic class that I picked up as an awkward teenager that I will never be able to fully repay.

In South Africa, there is a concept known as ubuntu that has no good English translation because of the fundamental differences in worldview that come through in language, but it teaches, basically, that who I am is tied up in who you are--that my humanity is fundamentally shared. I am who I am because my coaches, teammates, competitors, and peers were and are who they are.

And I could not be more grateful for that fact, that I got to be influenced by those whose work in speech and debate has made for a more engaged and thoughtful world.

Vancouver, Washington
March 3, 2017

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