Written by Christopher Scheer, Skyline’s lead Debate Coach
Titans Christine Harris and Malachi Ambrose won their second (and qualifying) bid to the invitation-only Tournament of Champions in Kentucky by making it to the semifinals at the Stanford Invitational on February 11-13. They unfortunately ended up losing to the eventual tournament champions, a pair from College Preparatory Academy, a private school in Oakland where the average SAT of the class of 2016 was a hair under 1500.
Nonetheless, Christine and Malachi will be attending this crazy prestigious tournament in the weird yet wonderful world of competitive high school debate called The Tournament of Champions (TOC). While it is not my goal to take away from the hard work and dedication to debate exhibited by Christine and Malachi, in my opinion, the TOC is a bastion of what is wrong with our country: a gathering of the children of the nation's economic and political elites, prepped since birth for success in a hyper-competitive quest to get into the best schools, jobs, and cemeteries. When I started the Debate Team at Skyline in 2008 as a debate newbie, I had never heard of it, but soon I was briefed on its legendary status and it seemed irrelevant to us -- the chance of a school like ours getting kids to be invited to the TOC was about the same as getting our football team to the Super Bowl; we existed in alternate realities. By the way, there is a great documentary by HBO called "Resolved" that profiled a pair of kids from Long Beach Poly trying to make the TOC.
Over time, though, our team, and the league which supports us, the Bay Area Urban Debate League (BAUDL), has built up sharp kids who can compete at higher levels than offered at our sheltered "incubator" tournaments. Each year, the league's "traveling team," drawn from high-poverty public schools in Oakland, San Francisco, Emeryville and Richmond, has pushed further afield into local tournaments dominated by suburban public and Catholic schools, and the "national circuit" of invitationals, such as Cal Invitational (this weekend) and Stanford Invitational that are dominated by elite private schools.
Our league, BAUDL, is a non-profit which partners with school districts, splitting the bill for food, locations, transportation and other costs associated with running six local BAUDL tournaments each year, and a one-week free Summer camp. However, BAUDL also has been successful in accessing wealthy foundations, firms and individuals to sponsor our student development at Summer month-long debate "institutes" and, during the year, with travel to invitationals in the Bay Area and beyond. Thus, after competing this weekend at Cal, Malachi and Christine will go on to debate in New York.
See, the reason I never thought we would reach the TOC is because of resources, not because of lack of faith in our students resilience and intelligence. The invitation process in inherently inequitable because students can only earn bids by doing very well on national circuit tournaments, so the more tournaments you do well at the better chance you have of being invited. Moreover, the more bids you can amass, the higher your seeding at the TOC, which is a huge advantage.
The end result is that the top debaters in the country are basically the equivalent of top college athletes who are constantly traveling. While at the Stanford Tournament, I spoke with a debater who said he traveled nearly every week of his senior year to tournaments all over the country! All of this costs lots of money -- hotels, specialized debate coaches, hiring judges (each tournament demands you provide experienced judges), plane fares. Parents of a top debater can easily spend $10K or more for a season on the circuit.
As you can imagine, I have a lot of mixed feelings about even accepting this rarified world as something that our students should participate in. I have taken kids to tournaments held at the top of CitiBank's world HQ during the recession, where the lunch entertainment was corporate lawyers telling our kids how great it was to work in finance -- just after one of our African-American debaters, with dreads and from 98th and International, was aggressively shushed in a stairwell for noise I, his middle-aged white coach, was making!
The really, really great news is that that exact same kid, Rashid Campbell (Skyline Class of 2009), is now a grown man and former college debate champion at the University of Oklahoma, is BAUDL's Director of Debate, and our traveling team coach. So he is helping kids navigate alien worlds of privilege with hard-won experience and wisdom.
The end result of this whole saga is that last year, under the coaching of Daryl Kinney and Rashid, Christine and her senior partner Max Li (Skyline Class of 2016), made the finals at the Cal Invitational, a grueling 3-day event often called "the West Coast Super Bowl of debate," which qualified them for the TOC. They went on to compete at the TOC, but lost in the first round.
Christine, not being satisfied, as any of you know her will believe, now wants to not only return to the TOC, with her new partner, Malachi, but also win it. Having accomplished the first, how can I doubt the second, whatever the odds?
For our league, built and funded expressly to help as many young people in underserved communities access and take advantage of the educational, personal and career benefits of competitive debates, this new level of achievement raises fundamental questions -- specifically, where will we put our resources?
Many debate teams, both in high school and college, are small, exclusive affairs, where massive human and financial resources are poured into a small number of kids -- "the best and the brightest." When I started the team here at Skyline, I was instructed by the league to target every student, and I tried, within reason, to do that. When the team became quite large, we always prided ourselves on being a team where any student should feel comfortable, even if they never moved up and out of the novice division.
Success is a dangerous thing! While I am excited by the outrageous success of individual varsity debaters like Christine and Malachi and Melaak Feleke and Rachel Chau, as well as the fact that for the first time ever we have three co-coaches ( with Mr. Noah and Ms. Samimi), I see that we can become complacent about the broader mission; and need to remember that we really don't know who will benefit and thrive in debate.
At our last BAUDL tournament Skyline only fielded 18 debaters, which is our lowest turnout in years. This is no good. We need to get 30-40 to each local event! (Transportation is the biggest barrier to student involvement, with raw fear running a close second.)
We have two more BAUDL tournaments this year, and we will begin ramping up a Spring recruitment plan over the next month. If you have any suggestions for students who would benefit from debate, please contact myself, Mr. Scheer, or Co-coaches, Mr. Noah and Ms. Samimi.