“In middle school, we were required to read a short story called ‘Flowers for Algernon,’ a story about a not-so-bright man undergoing surgery to become a genius,” explains East Ridge High School senior Julie Ma. “During the unit, we had a one-versus-one style debate on whether it was wise for Charlie to undergo the surgery or not.”
For Julie, this classroom book discussion, styled as a debate, was eye-opening. “I found that making arguments and listening to my opponent’s arguments was both interesting and exhilarating, so I wanted to pursue debate in high school,” Julie explains.
As luck would have it, East Ridge High School has a thriving debate team, and Julie fit right in. High school debate teams have been around for decades, and they encourage students to be open-minded, to organize and present their thoughts, to develop arguments, to research, and to hone their public speaking skills—among other benefits.
Julie is now the senior captain of the ERHS debate team, and she describes it as being like “the mother of the team.” Apart from making sure everyone is accounted for and organizing other logistics, Julie describes herself as “a resource for any of the students if they are lost or if they feel nervous.”
The captains (besides Julie, this also includes a junior captain) also hold monthly meetings to discuss different debate categories. And together, they talk about strategies for improving the team, “whether it’s competition-wise or social-wise,” Julie says. Captains also plan debate parties, which are small gatherings at a team member’s home, intended to foster strong friendships outside of the strict debate setting, especially for team members who don’t participate in the same categories.
Apart from the captain meetings, the team “also [has] students at different practices on Wednesdays,” says coach Katie Scholz.
Each Saturday during the season, students travel to different schools for debate meets, where they show off what they’ve learned. Julie says the very first thing they do is to grab a table in the commons area, where the team gathers between debate rounds to catch up and brainstorm. Each high school team is organized into debate categories; Julie Ma’s category is Congress, so she competes against Congress groups from other schools. “Congress students are usually divided between three and five chambers,” she says, “which emulates actual Congress chambers.”
In addition to regular meets, tournaments are the biggest events of the year for the East Ridge team. In June, five ERHS students will compete in the National Speech and Debate Tournament in the Congressional Debate category.
But tournaments and meets aside, the benefits of debate are powerful and long-lasting. Students broaden their perspectives and share their personal experiences with others; they’re also immersed in current events, politics and other real-world happenings. Julie Ma says that’s her favorite part of being on the team. Her biggest motivation to join was to “meet new people with different views.” She adds, “I’m always interested in how other people view the world and the events that occur within it.”
After graduation, Julie intends to keep her debating spirit alive. She says, “I plan on attending a four-year university and continuing to participate in debate” at the college level.