Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Debate Team Became Cool ; A Journalist Follows a Cluster of High School Debaters Relying on Argument to Propel Themselves out of a Crumbling High School

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Debate Team Became Cool ; A Journalist Follows a Cluster of High School Debaters Relying on Argument to Propel Themselves out of a Crumbling High School

Article excerpt

The high school debaters featured in ~~b~~Cross-X~~/b~~ can cram a long string of words into a breathless minute. Journalist Joe Miller reproduces that intensity by cramming at least three intertwined stories into one book.

The first tale is the stuff of Hollywood flicks: Underdogs from the inner city surmount personal and institutional barriers to take the national debate circuit by storm. But understanding this story requires an examination of everything from the quirks of the debate subculture to the racial and political dynamics of education. Finally, Miller himself becomes the protagonist in a third narrative strand, utterly abandoning his original journalistic objectivity.

There would be no story to tell if not for Jane Rinehart, coach of the successful debate squad at Central High School in Kansas City, Mo. Rinehart's room is a jumble of energy, where, instead of trying to subdue her students' cockiness, she channels it into a competitive machine. She's always on the lookout, Miller writes, for "kids who buck authority, who are too smart for their own good."

Up at 4:30 a.m. and not home until 7 at night, Rinehart embodies the idea that education is a calling: She refuses to lower her expectations for her students, who might otherwise languish at low- performing Central. She puts up with their hip-hop music but doesn't hesitate to cut off profanity by barking, "Mouth!" (Still, there's no shortage of profanity here.)

As Miller tags along during the 2002-03 season, he looks beyond the surface, befriending a cluster of the debaters.

They live in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. One copes with the periodic reappearance of his drug-addicted mother; another has a mother everyone loves, but lives in a falling-down house with no phone. On road trips, they flirt one moment and contemplate the existence of God the next. One young man is captivated by the concept of infinity: "If the universe is endless," he says, "there's always somethin' to learn." Debate helps to make the learning feel relevant.

Assigned to two-person teams, the kids come to depend on one another, though they often pretend they don't. The posturing fits well in the debate world, with its own lingo and rules.

The resolution they have to debate, sometimes for and other times against, is that the federal government should substantially increase mental health services. But the arguments they construct veer off into dramatic tangents such as the threat of nuclear annihilation. In cross-X (cross-examination), teams challenge one another with blistering confidence, sometimes provoking tears.

One of the central figures is Marcus Leach, a senior on the Central squad.

Rinehart sees him as the most brilliant debater she's ever coached, as someone who has "the mind of a great general. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.