Judging Amity - the students ARE the point , A personal perspective

It is 7:30 a.m. and I am cocooned in the tall seat of the small school bus. We are waiting for one more student to arrive. I'm not the only one asking myself what I'm doing there on a sub-arctic Saturday morning when I could be home in bed. I hear the kids asking the same question.

Just as we are ready to give up waiting, the student arrives. The Amity Debating Club is ready to go to the full-day tournament at Xavier High School in Middletown. On the road, the seven students forget about the sleep they've lost. They are looking forward to the debates and their enthusiasm makes me feel that I've made the right decision in saying "yes" to the teacher who asked me to accompany them as a parent-judge.

The debating club is one of Amity's non-athletic teams. There are no uniforms, only a dress code of clothing a peg up from everyday school-wear, and the competition is intellectual. There are no cheerleaders, a band doesn't play, and the object is to improve personal skills rather than demolish the teams from the other schools.

The club's co-captain, Crystal Li, a senior with an outstanding and mature leadership style, explains the process for me on the way to Middletown. The debates will be "extemporaneous"; the students are given a topic and speak on it without preparation prior to the day of the debate. Debaters will be paired and in each of three debates, will face another pair. In other styles, such as the Lincoln-Douglas, debaters face off one-on-one and the topic is circulated weeks prior to the event so that papers can be prepared in advance in both negative and positive arguments.

The Amity club has 12 members, but only seven came today. That's fine, Crystal explains, because Xavier has only enough rooms to accommodate four pairs from each member school. Schools from all over the state participate, from the tiny towns of Fairfield County to the inner cities of Hartford and Bridgeport.

When we arrive at Xavier, an all-boy school, we are ushered in by a sea of men and boys in blue blazers. They are just about the only color in the building, a stark reminder that almost everyone here is male. But they are gracious hosts and when they learn I am writing an article on the Connecticut Debate Association, they are even more accommodating. Two of the school's staff run the association for the member schools.

They provide juice, coffee and doughnuts for the preparation period, when the students are given reading material on the issue of the day, "Resolved, the Federal Government of the United States shall ensure that all American citizens are guaranteed quality health care." Participants must prepare arguments on both the affirmative and negative sides.

While they prep, I train to become a judge. Afterward, I return to the students just before the debates begin and Crystal is not with them. Because Amity has an odd number, and she is the only one who will debate at the varsity level (the others are first year debaters at novice level), she has volunteered to debate with another school that also has an extra. She spends much the day with the Hartford Public High School team.

I realize I am not going to be able to judge without help. Besides rating the quality, I have to time each section of the hour debates -there are 12 arguments, cross-examinations and rebuttals in addition to optional preparation times for each team - and hold up my fingers to indicate two minutes, one minute and 30 seconds left for each period. The trainers have given us a wide piece of paper with headings and columns on which to write comments, and then there is the final ballot to fill-out. My multi-tasking skills are not what they used to be, so our hosts pair me with the New Britain High School coach, and I watch and learn from him. He has his own shorthand to track the kids and shows me how to do it. It works.

At the end of the day, everyone regroups to watch a fourth and final debate between the two highest scoring varsity pairs. Crystal returns, bringing with her a student from Hartford Public who wants to know all about Crystal's application to Yale University, where she has already earned an early acceptance for next year.

The kids receive their debating ballots and review their scores and the comments from the judges. They did not earn trophies for being among the top five scorers in novice or varsity, (although one came close) and neither did any of the pairs, but they all enjoyed their day, and according to Crystal, " It all depends upon the judges. You can do well most of the time and then have one really disappointing day. But it doesn't mean your style is poor. It's just the way the judge you get perceives it." They feel better after her pep talk and focus on the comments they received.

On the way home, Crystal asks them whether they think Amity should host the February tournament. The decision has to be made within several days. It will involve a tremendous amount of organizing - and more parents - as well as paying a custodian to come in on a Saturday. The kids wonder if that's possible during this budget controversy. They decide they probably can't do it. Crystal forges on. "Would anyone like to attend a Lincoln-Douglas debate?" she asks.

The four boys and three girls are easy to be with on the bus. They laugh and joke, but they are always polite to each other and even nice to me. They make me proud to be an Amity parent.

How many times, I think to myself as we pull into the parking lot, I've heard voters angry at the Amity Board of Education come into the polls and declare that the students are beside the point in this standoff between the public and the publicly elected.

They all, the board members and the public, should spend a day with some of these terrific kids, and they might then realize that the students are the point.

Thank you Crystal and all of the debating team for allowing me to first hand understand how important your education is.