| A high school debate team does surprisingly well at the championship tournament. Or do they? |
I didn’t know this at the time but Iowa is considered one of the top states in terms of K-12 educational quality and achievement. Every year we took the “Iowa Basic Skills Tests” and I was shocked to learn—a decade later—that students all over the country also took the “Iowa Tests” as they’re called. We were the standard-setter apparently.
Not surprisingly, high school debate was a big deal in Iowa. When I entered high school (10th grade) my parents said I had to sign up for some extra-curricular activity. The Debate Team sounded interesting so my friend John Wood and I decided to attend the introductory session. Perhaps I was kind of a legacy candidate because I remembered vaguely that my older sister Beth had won the State Championship in Debate her senior year.
Well, she was always the white sheep of the family, the over-achiever, the one her two siblings knew we could never keep up with. (Jump ahead many years, and Beth had a Ph.D. from Tufts University in International Relations and was working for Jimmy Carter in the White House as Ass’t Special Trade Representative, before Ron Lauder sent her to manage the Estee Lauder cosmetics line in Australia. She met her future husband at a ski resort near Melbourne…and never came back.)
Anyway, being a nervous, insecure adolescent, I looked around with trepidation at the introductory session of the Cedar Falls High School Speech and Debate Team. Upper classmen were explaining how debate and the other disciplines worked, and providing us mock examples, etc. It all sounded quite tedious and boring and a lot of work, but there was something here not boring at all: pretty girls. And the prettiest of all was Jo Van Gerpen, a gorgeous blonde who I’d had my eye on in Junior High but of course had never been brave enough to actually speak to. She was way out of my league. But here she was, attending the debate team intro session. Hmmm. I signed up that very night. So did John.
Well, of course it made sense for John, who was not only my next door neighbor and closest friend since age five. He was like Beth: super smart, accomplished, and destined for great things. Yep, he went on to become Valedictorian of the class, Student Forum President, and probably lots of other stuff above my station. Not surprisingly, after an Ivy League education, John became a lawyer, and eventually a partner at the most prestigious law firm in Colorado. Yep. All quite predictable. But in high school we at least had one thing in common: we were Lord of the Rings junkies. It was almost a religion, so addicted were we both to the world of Middle Earth, and the books we’d each read over half a dozen times. We learned how to write in Tolkien-based Dwarf runes, and would exchange secret notes in the aisle, written in Dwarfish. No, I’m not kidding. We actually did that.
Anyway, that’s how it all started, with that first introductory night of the Cedar Falls High School Speech and Debate Team.
Jump ahead to Senior Year, late in the season. John and I had earned spots on the four-person varsity debate team, along with Dave Schiller and Mike Lauterbach. And Jo and I had been dating for over a year. Could life get any better? Why yes it could! Theoretically we might win the State Championship, just like my sister and her team had. And the goal was not outlandish.
Cedar Falls had been winning speech and debate tournaments all over the state that year. Although I was “varsity,” our coach Miss Mikesell did a good job of keeping things mixed up, occasionally pairing varsity members with lower-ranked debaters for the two-person teams that formed the structure of high school debate back then. Once, for the ISU Invitational, she paired Jo and me together and we went undefeated, taking third place against over thirty other schools.
At that tournament, the undefeated teams were ranked at the end by “speaker points,” not playoff rounds. Speaker points (1-10) are awarded by the judge irrespective of who wins the debate, and simply represent how eloquent you are “as a speaker.” When Jo’s and my trophy was being handed out, and it was time to walk down the aisle to the front of the room amidst applause, Jo insisted I go up alone. She was too embarrassed. She believed it was her fault we hadn’t taken first place, as she knew her speaker-point totals had dragged us down. Well, maybe. She wasn’t great as a speaker, but did I care? I was far more focused on her than on a stupid trophy and had spent the whole tournament in kind of a romantic fog.
The varsity debaters competed in other disciplines, such as Extemporaneous Speaking and Impromptu Speaking. With Extemp you got 45 minutes to prepare a 10 minute speech on a topic you’d literally draw out of a hat. Example: “Should the UN Security Council be disbanded and the power handed to the General Assembly?” With Impromptu you got five minutes to prepare a five minute speech. People who were good at debate tended to do well in those events as well. John took first place in Extemp in several tournaments. But though I occasionally competed in both, I wasn’t very good at either. Debate was my specialty.
The four varsity team members were close friends by this time but I had strong opinions on our individual strengths and weaknesses. Subjectively, I felt there were two components involved in winning debates: eloquence of presentation, and logic. An eloquent speaker simply sounded good and their arguments seemed compelling even if they weren’t. Delivery was an important part of winning debates. Logic was about the arguments themselves. Obviously, some were better than others. The ability to come up with devastating rebuttles to your opponent’s position was the second half of the required skill.
So among the four of us, who was best? I never mentioned this to anyone, but my own opinion was that John was hands down the best speaker. It’s why he was so good at Extemp. He had a silken tongue and was our team’s Cicero. He could make even weak arguments sound good. And that was the problem. I never considered his logic all that compelling. But boy could he deliver it persuasively.
Then there was Mike Lauterbach. Man was he smart. He always came up with brilliant and devastating arguments, and was without doubt the best logician on the team. But his presentation was lackluster and a bit dull. Not terrible. Just…not John Wood quality by a mile.
Dave Schiller I felt was the weakest team member. His logic wasn’t that great, nor was his ability as a speaker. He was good enough to occupy the fourth position on the varsity team, but just barely. Ironically, of the four of us, Dave was the only one who went on to compete in college, in his case for Drake University. And—get this—he took second place at College Nationals, losing out in the final round to Harvard on a 4-3 decision. Wow. Dave just peaked later, I guess.
So where was I in the mix? Soberly, of the four I thought I was second best as a speaker (behind John), and also second best as a logician (behind Mike). Not to be immodest, but I considered this a pretty good combination—strong in both, if not perfect in either.
It was fun competing for Cedar Falls. At the time we were ranked consistently among the top five teams in the state (see news article) and there were probably over a hundred schools we competed against in our “Division 1” environment. When entering a room for a debate round, the competitors would not know ahead of time who they’d be facing.
So when the other team walked in, each was curious about the other. And when they heard we were from Cedar Falls, you’d just feel the energy in the room change. They knew there were in trouble. “Cedar Falls, oh great!” would be a typical response, and their eyes would roll.
Who were our big competitors? I remember the three we most respected: Cedar Rapids Regis, Des Moines Dowling, and Dennison. Dennison? Who were they? This season that small town in Western Iowa had somehow produced an absolutely killer boy/girl team who were wiping up everywhere they went. Everyone was scared of the mighty “Dennison Duo.”
And there’s an important point here. Best I could determine, Cedar Falls was the only team in the State that actually had four top-level varsity debaters. Other schools might have four competing in varsity, but of those four, only two of them were serious threats. And those two would always be paired together to give that school the best chance for a trophy. By contrast our coach, Miss Mikesell, having such a strong bench, would mix and match the four of us between tournaments, knowing any combination could do well.
Now it was the end of the season, with only one tournament left: the State Championship itself. Whoever took first and second place would go on to Nationals, and that was the big prize: making it to Nationals.
And our hopes were high. Just before the State Championship, the final polls had come out and Cedar Falls, for the first time, was now ranked number one in the state.
So how would our coach divide us up? I wasn’t surprised when Mikesell chose John Wood and Mike Lauterbach as the best of the four, and paired them together for the big event. That left me stuck with Dave Schiller. As coach, she also was required—if two varsity teams were being entered from a single school, to declare one the A team and one the B team. That was needed for seeding purposes. The A team was obviously the good one, of whom great things were expected. The B team was sort of there just to fill out the roster, kind of a sacrificial lamb.
Obviously, the goal of the seedings was to not have the best teams in the state annihilate each other in the preliminary rounds, but to be the ones who’d survive to the quarter, semi, and final rounds. That’s always how it’s done, in every competition.
Being designated the B team, Dave and I were seeded low and would go up against some of the top seeded teams in the early rounds. Lovely. We’d probably get eliminated early, but John and Mike were the real standard bearers for Cedar Falls, and I couldn’t quibble with our coach’s decision.
Yet you never know what’s going to happen at a tournament do you? What’s that phrase in the NFL? “…any given Sunday?”
The three day tournament was structured in two parts: six preliminary rounds, followed by “the playoffs,” consisting of quarter, semi, and finals. Two rounds late Friday. Four rounds on Saturday. And Sunday was for the sudden-death events.
Off we went. I was feeling pretty good at this tournament, like I was kind of hitting my stride for the whole year. Pressure was off, as Dave and I were the B team, of whom obviously not much was expected. I could just enjoy the event, and was enjoying it. So was Dave, who was doing surprisingly well I thought. In one of those preliminary rounds I got to use my most powerful argument of the year, that not only won us that debate but brought laughter from the audience.
The competing team was trying to make the point that even though the chance of “x” happening (I can’t remember what x was), was quite low, it was still possible, and therefore we had to take precautions against it. In my rebuttal I got up and made this point:
“We need to do something because there is merely a chance of it being needed? Oh really? There is a chance that tomorrow the United States of America could be invaded by pygmies from Africa. It’s not likely but it’s not impossible. There’s a chance. So does the chance that the United States might be invaded by pygmies from Africa mean we should all go arm ourselves with spears?”
The whole room exploded with laughter, and that’s how you win debates.
But when the preliminary rounds were over, Miss Mikesell gathered the four of us together to deliver utterly shocking news. “It hasn’t been officially announced yet, so don’t say anything. But something unprecedented has happened. Mike and John, you went undefeated through your six rounds and will be going to quarter finals. Congratulations. But Jacques and Dave, so did you. Both Cedar Falls varsity teams, A and B, are in the playoffs!”
This had never happened in the history of Iowa high school debate. And it was especially shocking because our B team had been seeded low. We were supposed to lose. Dave’s and my undefeated record had knocked out of the competition mighty Cedar Rapids Regis, one of the contenders for state champion. That had been the pygmy debate.
Wow, we were all speechless (so to speak). I can’t remember if I slept well that night, but I must have been nervous. Of all the high schools in the state of Iowa, only eight teams remained, and two of them were Cedar Falls.
Again, this had never before happened.
But the next day it got worse, and the debate coaches who were running the tournament were becoming frantic. Why? Because that morning, both Cedar Falls teams won their quarter final rounds.
Now we were truly in uncharted territory. Of the four teams left in the competition, two of them were from the same school. Not only had this never happened in Iowa high school debate, it had probably never happened in high school debate anywhere in the country.
The immediate problem the judges faced was how to set up the semi-final round. You had four teams left: Des Moines Dowling, Dennison, Cedar Falls, and Cedar Falls. There were two choices: Have the two CF teams each take on one of the other schools, or have the two CF teams face each other in semi-finals.
There were pros and cons for us in either case. If we faced each other, that would guarantee that one of the teams would go on to finals. Even if we lost the final round, we’d take second place in the State Championship, and that second place win would send Cedar Falls to Nationals. And there was a 50-50 chance we’d win that final round and take first place.
But at least second place, and a slot at Nationals, would be guaranteed. Very tempting.
On the other hand, that plan equally guaranteed that one of the CF teams would be eliminated.
If we each were paired against another school, you still might have at least one of the CF teams make it into finals, and achieve the same outcome. More tantalizing was the slim possibility that both CF teams would make it into finals. One would win the State Championship, but they’d then both go to Nationals.
It was too weird and complicated a decision for the tournament organizers to make on their own. They decided to let our coach, Miss Mikesell, decide. They handed to her the privilege of organizing the semi-final round. Who knew what the rules were?
But it was too big a decision even for her. She met with the four of us privately in a conference room, and we reviewed the choices. “I can’t make this decision,” she declared. “I need the four of you to decide how you want to play it. I’ll go with your choice.”
Talk about pressure. Here we were, four 17 year old High School seniors, having to decide how the Iowa State Debate Championships would be sorted out. And we weren’t just four people making a tough decision. We were four debaters! That meant we were each very good at looking at both sides of an issue.
The idea of the two varsity teams debating each other had a lot of appeal, and sounded like fun. Since we were from the same school, we knew Cedar Falls’ affirmative case intimately and all the weaknesses to it, and we knew the negative case intimately and all the weaknesses to it. Both two-man teams could debate either side effectively. But against each other? It was not clear who would win. It was not clear who we’d want to win.
But the decision was reached quickly. It became obvious to all four of us that if we played it conservatively and guaranteed ourselves at least a second place win, we’d spend the rest of our lives wondering if we’d made the right decision. If we each went up against a different school, hey, let the chips fall where they may. We wouldn’t be gaming the system, so to speak. Each team would take its own chances. That seemed a fairer thing to do, and that was our decision.
So for the semi-final round it would be John and Mike versus Des Moines Dowling, and Dave and me against Dennison.
A brief note about the structure of high school debate at the time. Two, two-person teams went against each other. One argued for the resolution, in the AFFIRMATIVE. The other argued against it, in the NEGATIVE. Based on who spoke first, the four were designated First Affirmative, First Negative, Second Affirmative, Second Negative. And the speeches were like this:
First Affirmate “Constructive”. Makes the case for why there’s a problem that needs fixing. (10 minutes)
First Negative “Constructive”. Disputes that the problem exists and/or that anything needs fixing (10 min.)
Second Affirmative “Constructive”. Briefly mentions a few reasons why First Negative is wrong, and then presents The Plan for solving the problem, along with explaining how it solves the problem. (10 min.)
Second Negative “Constructive”. Again tears apart the existence of the problem and then tries to utterly destroy the stupid plan which wouldn’t work even if there were a problem, which by the way there isn’t. (10 min.)
First Negative Rebuttal. Re-emphasizes and expands upon everything the Second Negative speaker just said. (5 minutes.)
First Affirmative Rebuttal. Has to refute a full fifteen minutes of Negative and has only five minutes to do it in. (5 min.)
Second Negative Rebuttal. Makes the final argument for the Negative
Second Affirmative Rebuttal. Makes the final argument for the Affirmative.
Given this structure, the First Affirmative speaker has both the easiest job, and the toughest. Easiest, because he starts off delivering a canned ten minute speech he memorized ages ago. No pressure. At this point in the year, he could give that speech in his sleep. The others have to prepare their own ten minute speeches on the fly, during the debate.
Toughest, because—look at that structure—First Affirmative has to come back after the two Negative Speakers have had an uninterrupted fifteen minutes to convince the judges they’re right. By this point, the Negative should be way ahead, and the judges probably can’t even remember what valid points the Affirmative team even had. So the First Affirmative has a mere five minutes to turn around that entire dynamic and get his team back on top.
Of all the four CF varsity debaters, everyone agreed that was my specialty. No one could handle First Affirmative like I could because for some reason I was unusually adept at concisely wiping out everything the other team had said. In just five minutes.
But this time I had to perform my magic against Dennison, one of the very best teams in the state.
In the semifinal round there were seven judges for each debate. You win or lose by a majority vote of the judges.
OK, let’s jump to the chase. Dave and I lost to Dennison on a 4-3 split decision.
And John and Mike lost to Des Moines Dowling on a 4-3 split decision.
We’d gambled and failed. With both teams losing, that meant we’d take 3rd and 4th place in the state finals, and none of us would go to Nationals.
It was the worst possible outcome. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Dave and I were pretty happy with the results, being the first time a B-Varsity team had ever made it to the elimination rounds, let alone to the semifinals, in the State Championship. But Mike and John were pretty distraught. They were the ones who’d had a good chance at winning First Place, and to come in third was a bitter ending to the season.
To be honest, I can’t remember (and don’t really care) whether Des Moines or Dennison won the final debate. But I do remember what sister Beth had to say, who’d been in the audience watching the Cedar Falls – Dennison round. This was the woman who—four years earlier—had been half of the two-person team that had won the state championship for Cedar Falls. She’d never before seen her brother debate, and had arrived just in time for the semifinals.
Later, she gave me her reaction. “After the First Negative Rebuttal, it looked like you guys were toast. I thought: there’s no way they can climb out of this hole. But, wow. In your five minute rebuttal you utterly wiped out every one of their arguments. I didn’t think that was even possible, but you somehow did it. And Dennison never recovered from that complete demolition. I’d have given you the win. And three of the judges agreed with me.”
That was high praise, coming from Beth. She’d not have sugar-coated it had she felt otherwise.
On the two-hour bus ride back home, there was only the mildest of self-recrimination about our decision not to go against each other. We’d had the choice to swing for the fences and we’d taken it. Sure, it was possible there was some slight bias by the judges against Cedar Falls at that point, because we were on a spectacular roll and maybe CF vs. CF in the finals would have been too weird. Or maybe possible bias was just in our imagination.
In any case I was pretty happy on that bus ride, and it had nothing to do with the tournament. I got to sit with Jo, and we discreetly held hands and cuddled the whole way home.
And wasn’t that the reason I’d gone out for the team in the first place?
Jo and I continued dating through college, until we finally broke up just before our senior year. Our lives were going in different directions and we both realized the relationship couldn’t last. But we stayed friends and—thirty years later—connected again (platonically) for a week together in Sierra Leone (2002). See: In Search of Conflict Diamonds.
Meanwhile, the Voorhees family was finally redeemed. In her own Senior Year (2004) daughter Kristen won the Colorado State Debate Championship for her division–going an entire year undefeated and taking first place at every tournament she entered.
But does any of this really matter in the real world? Actually, yes. Jump ahead. Kristen–as part of of a four person team from #1 in the nation most perstigous corporate law firm Skadden, Arps–won a $500 million lawsuit against Facebook.
Thank you, Kristen, for giving this story a happy ending!! 🙂