Every so often I find myself outside a mall or multiplex near a clutch of teenagers. They're usually just a little too loud, a little too pierced, a little too tattooed. At least half of them are smoking and the language that filters over to me is, well, colorful. There's a shriek that could be hilarity or alarm. It's hard to tell. I keep moving.
Last Saturday, I spent the day with a different genre of kids. Long before dawn I boarded a bus with a group of North Hall High School students bound for the Winter by the Lake Debate Tournament in Lincolnton.
This tournament is a big deal. There were almost 200 students, representing 23 schools.
The lunchroom, which was used as a staging ground, was packed. Individual event competitions such as humorous and dramatic interpretation, extemporaneous and impromptu speaking, original oratory, prose and poetry filled the classrooms. Youth Congress was held in the auditorium. Policy debaters packed the hallways. I have no idea where they put the Lincoln-Douglas (ethics debate) people.
There were 10 hours of intense competition. I judged some of the prose/poetry and humorous and dramatic interpretation rounds. I didn't do any judging that involved the North Hall kids, of course.
A young lady from Warner Robbins did a beautiful job of reading a piece by Maya Angelou. The haunting refrain stayed with me: "Alone, all alone. Nobody, but nobody ... Can make it out here alone."
One girl from South Georgia was particularly enamored with British accents. Every piece she did involved an attempt at, oh, so upper crust elocution. It was sort of like Hermione Granger meets Cairo, Ga. On her ballot, I suggested she find a piece that was sans accent. To myself I thought maybe something from "Member of the Wedding" might work better.
The dramatic interpretation pieces dealt with a cornucopia of misery: spousal abuse, madness, suicide, incest. The heart-wrenching performances were so hard to rank. They were all exceptional.
Hours after the sun set we loaded up the bus and headed home. North Hall had taken second in humorous interpretation and third in original oratory. Everyone had received some valuable experience and seemed geared up for the next competition at Gainesville High School at the end of the month.
Sadly, only one Hall County high school fields a debate team. I'm not sure why. There's no huge expenditure for equipment. The major investment is time. North Hall's coach, Steve Wang, gave up a Saturday with his four-month old baby, Jacob, in order to attend the meet. For that, I salute him.
There are after-school practices and Youth Congresses at area schools where delegates learn to introduce, argue, amend and vote on bills dealing with current issues. Just ask Casey Cagle if that's a valuable skill to develop. I'm pretty sure I know the answer.
You parents who see the value of having a team at your school: send me an e-mail. I'm no expert on building a team but I know people who are. I'll be happy to put you together.
The best of the state debaters get to compete on a national level each year and there are lots of scholarships to be earned. Being able to think on your feet and speak comfortably before groups is an ability that benefits a person no matter what their occupation.
The next time I pass a gaggle of slackers outside a mall, I'll think of another group of kids. I'll remember Ty, Eli, Rob, Tyler, Andrew and Rachel. Smart, funny, talented, motivated kids who don't mind working hard to polish their skills and reach their goals. These are the sorts of kids who will eventually run our world.
It's important that we as parents help them develop the abilities they need to do the job properly. A debate team is an excellent investment in the future. Call me.
Originally published in the Gainesville Times on January 16, 2009