Back in January of 2009, I wrote a column about attending a debate tournament with a busload of kids from North Hall High School. At the time, my daughter, Rachel, was a freshman, just cutting her allegorical teeth on individual event competitions such as humorous and dramatic interpretation.
Now she's a senior, one of the debate old-timers, winding down her career in the last few competitions and state qualifiers. It's time for this debate mom to wax retrospective.
When Rachel started high school, the debate program at North Hall had gone fallow.
History and economics teacher Steven Wang reactivated it and managed to recruit a handful of students. With no budget, a full teaching load, a new baby and a bunch of callow kids, he managed to cobble together a strong program that is now chartered with the National Forensic League. Honestly, it's a Hallmark movie just waiting to be made.
Rachel flourished in the program. She was the one to try to beat in competitions involving humorous and dramatic interpretation. She breathed life into characters as diverse as a coy cucaracha ("Martina the Beautiful Cockroach"), a girl with second thoughts about love ("Almost, Maine") and a young woman meeting the father she had never known ("One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies".)
This year she made the decision to move away from the familiar and take on original oratory and impromptu speaking. She's done well in those events, too.
The ultimate test of her skills and composure came last week in Columbus at the Georgia Thespian Conference where, as one of the seven State Student Officers, she helped run the conference, teach workshops, raise funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and conference scholarships, and address a concert hall of 2,000 people. Four times. It was a triumph on all counts.
All that being said, don't think for a moment that I'm happy with this program. I'm not.
In traveling with the team and judging competitions I quickly became aware of inequities among programs. Our team was competing against schools with full-time speech and debate teachers, ones with the funds and transportation to attend as many as 24 tournaments each year. We were lucky if we made it to 10.
Even with that disadvantage, Rachel managed to amass more than 1,000 National Forensic League points which gives her the Outstanding Distinction Degree and a ranking of fifth in the district. Just think what she could have done if she'd been able to compete in twice as many events.
The shameful fact is there are only two active speech and debate programs among Hall County schools. The one at Johnson High School is sponsored by Mr. Wang's wife, Charity.
In years past, public speaking was a required course for graduation in many schools. It's time to bring that requirement back. In a school system that's spending millions to build field house additions, surely there's a way to fund a few faculty positions for speech and debate teachers, too.
Granted, a debate tournament has never yielded a $10,000 gate, but the intangible benefits are just as great. If we want our kids to prosper in the future, they have to be trained to think critically and express themselves eloquently.
Watching these young people compete is like peeking into the future. I'm convinced that sometime around 2035, we'll elect a governor or congressman who hails from Lee County High School, Class of 2012. I've judged that kid in extemporaneous speaking events on several occasions and he's unstoppable. Kyle Constable. Remember the name.
I'm just guessing but I suspect schools are getting field house additions, in part, because parents lobbied for them. So let's do that for speech and debate programs. Here. I'll make it easy for you. The Hall County School superintendent's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Write to him. Tell him your child deserves better. Tell him you'll do your part. You'll work with the booster club, you'll help with tournaments, you'll travel with the team. Tell him a successful program needs a full-time instructor and funds for travel.
It's a letter I wish I'd sent four years ago.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman whose columns appear biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.