By Janie Lee, 16, Troy HS
Print This Post

I had sweaty palms, shaking legs and little confidence. Five years ago in fifth grade I was giving a presentation on Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. As I was squeezing my hands underneath a table where nobody could see, I stuttered through the longest five minutes of my life. I told myself to not screw up or look stupid. I thought that everyone would laugh at me or think that I was boring.

My mom noticed how much I feared projects in which I had to speak in front of the class so in seventh grade she signed me up for a speech and debate class at a local tutoring center. I was so mad at her for making me go. She told me, “You have to get over this fear. It’s never going to get better if you don’t do anything about it.”

When I first started going to class I dreaded it. Whenever I knew I had to speak, I would try to delay it as much as possible by asking the teacher questions or shuffling through papers pretending that I forgot my materials at home. When the moment to speak finally came, I always tried to get through it as quickly as possible. The first time I had to speak in front of everyone, I kept my eyes glued to my paper as I read. When I tried to say something, nothing came out, and when something finally did, I stuttered a lot. I cannot even remember what I was talking about that day because I was so nervous.

It was almost as bad as when people would critique me. One boy told me that I needed to make more eye contact and another boy told me that I didn’t look very comfortable. Although the critique was hard to hear, it was helpful. It was the first time anyone had told me something specific that I needed to work on so it gave me a goal.

Class was fun

After a month, I started looking forward to the class. My teacher Tom showed me that public speaking is not as bad as I thought. He taught me that as you start getting passionate about what you talk about, the easier it becomes to talk in front of others. Although the advice Tom gave me seemed helpful, I learned most through his example. Whenever Tom spoke, he used hand gestures to help emphasize what he was saying and made a connection with his audience through eye contact. One assignment was debate the No Child Left Behind Act, which raises the federal academic standards that all students have to meet. I had no idea what it was, but after researching I started to see it was not an effective way to measure students’ academic abilities and too expensive. Tom started by asking my opinion and made me elaborate. Before I knew it, I was speaking in front of the whole class ranting about why I thought the No Child Left Behind Act was a bad idea. It felt great to be able to express my opinion.

We would debate every other week. There are different types of debate such as team debate, partner debate and individual one-on-one debate. You start with a resolution, which is a statement that one side must support and the other side must oppose. The resolution is usually related to current events, like: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.

Through debate, I learned so much about things I was interested in. We debated the war in Iraq, offshore drilling and Tibet. We spent two weeks on every resolution. For one week, the class would do research, learning all sides of the issue. The next week, we debated each other. More than debating, I enjoyed the research and discussion. It was fascinating learning about current events that I did not even know were occurring, like offshore drilling or education reform policies.

One night at the dinner table with my parents, the news was on in the living room and there was a story about offshore drilling. I asked my parents whether or not they supported it. They were against it, but for different reasons than I was. My mom said, “It is not guaranteed that oil will be found from offshore drilling. Even if oil were to be found, nobody would see lower gas prices for another decade.” I agreed with them, but I wanted them to know why I was against it. I told them, “The environmental effects of offshore drilling are disastrous. It can harm phytoplankton, our number one source of oxygen. Millions of animals are affected because their habitats are disturbed as well.” My parents were astonished. They told me they were proud of how much I changed and how well I was able to carry on an intelligent conversation with them.

As much as I liked class, I knew that the day would come when we actually had to debate against other teams outside of class.

Two years ago, my team of four from class went to our first competition at UCLA. All of us had half a year’s worth of experience. We prepared for months by doing research and debating against one another, although we did not know what type of competition we’d face. There could have been teams that had years of experience and teams that had way more preparation and skill than us. We went through three rounds and just hoped for the best. Our months of preparation really helped. We debated the No Child Left Behind Act against three other teams. We got points throughout the debate for the quality of our arguments and the quality of our speaking, but we didn’t find out exactly how many points we got until the end of the day. I felt like we had solid arguments against most of our opponents.

We stayed for the awards ceremony to see who won. We didn’t think we’d receive any awards since there were so many other competitors and it was our first tournament. When first place was about to be announced, my team and I were preparing to leave but to our surprise, our name got called. We all looked at each other in amazement. We got a letter from Governor Schwarzenegger congratulating us. It left me speechless. I knew debate was something I was serious about and wanted to do more of.

I used to hide my hobby

However, I had a hard time talking about my passion with other people. At school and to my friends, I was the girl interested in clothes and always having a good time. Debate was perceived as something nerdy by my friends. Nobody expected me to do something like debate. To fit in I felt like I needed to play a sport like soccer or tennis. One of my best friends was a star volleyball player, the other was class president … and I was a debater.

Once when someone asked me what I was doing over the weekend, I told him, “I’m going to a debate tournament.” All I got as a response was a bewildered look and, “You debate?” I felt self-conscious and tried to hide it from my friends because I was embarrassed. When a debate tournament and a friend’s birthday party conflicted I lied and told my friend that I had to go to a family party. However, I realized that I shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed of something just because it’s different. My mom told me that I should be proud of debate, because it makes me unique.

I started to share my passion, even though it took several months for my friends, even my brother, and classmates to get used to the fact that I debated. I invite my friends and family to some of my debate tournaments and try to recruit others to join the debate team. The first time my mom watched me debate, she told me she felt like she was watching a different person. She said, “I’ve never seen you so confident when you speak!” It’s encouraging to see the people I care about come and support me, and it makes me want to do better.

The debate team at my school is close to nonexistent and I’ve had to go to some tournaments on my own. Rather than signing up for a tournament with a school, I would sign up individually and attend by myself. It has been hard sometimes, especially during tournaments. Looking at everyone who was with their teams of more than 50 people, I felt alone. Sometimes I felt like quitting debate. But every time I stepped into a classroom and started to debate, I would be reminded about how much I love debate. Listening to an opponent’s rebuttals while a million thoughts are going through my head trying to find a counter argument or asking questions during cross-examination were thrilling.

Through the tournaments, I’ve met more and more people that have become good friends. Thankfully, we have a new debate advisor at our school and we’ve been going to more tournaments gradually as a school. We have about seven students go to each tournament. It’s so refreshing to be able to go to tournaments with a team. Hopefully, our debate team continues to develop into a stronger team and we go to more tournaments. This year, I almost made the cut to go to state, but I’m motivated to do better next year.

Last year in my European history class, we were having a discussion on children’s rights during the Industrial Revolution and I found myself in the middle of a heated debate with other students. One of my classmates said, “If the only way to make ends meet is to work, then they should help their families and work.” With a completely opposite opinion, I said, “It’s unfair and inhumane for children to have to work for up to 16 hours a day. They should have protection from cruel treatment.” I loved how I could express my feelings without being afraid of what other people thought.

I am so thankful for my mom for pushing me toward debate. I was mad at her at first, but I’m grateful now. Debate has given me a passion for current events and issues in society. It even motivates me to want to study political science in college so I can hopefully be able to make changes in policies, not just debate about them.