Saturday, January 24, 2009

A debate worth having only takes time.

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

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Collards, Cornbread and a New Year's Promise

New Year's has always been one of my favorite holidays. I like the idea of closure. Ringing out the old as you ring in the new is about as perfect a closure as you can get.

As long as I can remember, New Year's Day involved eating the traditional black-eyed peas, collards and cornbread. Superstition holds that eating those foods will result in financial gain in the coming year with the collards representing dollar bills and the peas acting as proxies for pennies.

When I stopped by my local grocery last Tuesday, most of the shopping carts were loaded with bunches of collards so this must be a fairly universal belief. Couldn't hurt. I suspect the economy's nosedive has been a real windfall for collard growers nationwide.

For years, one of my favorite New Year's Eve traditions was the First Night Celebration. It took place in downtown Gainesville at multiple venues. It was alcohol-free and family friendly.

The evening always started at the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids, or INK, which at that time was located in the old First Methodist Church building. Kids would be treated to a musical program, magicians' tricks and get to make craft masks, which they'd then wear in a parade that led to the Mountain Center where the real party started.

There was indeed something for everyone: bluegrass music, theatre productions, a classic rock ‘n' roll band, face painting, the storytelling genius of Kathy Amos, more crafts, those huge inflatable bounce houses that kids never seem to tire of and, my personal favorite, Emerald Rose.

Emerald Rose describes its music as Celtic American Folk Rock. Their contemporary compositions used pennywhistles, Irish pipes, world percussion, guitar and bass to create New Year's magic.
And of course there was the countdown and balloon drop at midnight. It was the perfect family New Year's Eve celebration.

First Night was discontinued a few years ago. I'm sure it's a monster to organize and a money pit as well since most of the events were free. But I still miss it. If anyone decides to revive it and needs help, my hand will be the first in the air.

I'm writing this column on New Year's Eve morning. It will appears Jan. 2. By then, life will be back to business as usual. It's a new year filled with foreboding and promise. The economy, the job market, the conflict in Gaza, it weighs on me. It makes the foreboding all too real and the promise hard to envision.

There were years when my resolutions revolved around things: finding the perfect big screen TV, losing weight and buying a new wardrobe. That's so 2006. Accumulating stuff doesn't matter, not any more.
I try to make resolutions that will make life better. First of all, to shop with local merchants whenever possible. After all, they will be the first to go in this fickle economy and we owe them our loyalty.

I vow to be the best possible steward of my family's resources. That means comparison shopping, coupon clipping, and squeezing another year out of my aging little pick-up.

This is a new year with new priorities. I vow to focus on what really matters. My husband. My children. My temple. My community.

Wait. NOW I see the promise ...

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, January 2, 2009