By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO October 14, 2003 Picture this:
More than 450 high-schoolers crammed into the Monticello High School . . . all arguing with one another.
It may sound like the last place anyone would want to be on a sunny fall weekend, but for the participating students, the 16th Annual Dr. Robert J. Kaiser Debate Invitational was nirvana.
I know definitely that my life is better because of the debate team, said Monticello junior Antoinette Fuoto, a three-year veteran of the schools speech and debate team. Its been the most valuable experience of my life.
That thought was echoed by numerous other classmates even though the entire Monticello team wasnt competing in the invitational, held on Friday and Saturday throughout the high school.
Thats the way it is every year, said Rose Joyce-Turner, an English teacher at Monti High and the schools debate team coach.
Somebody has to host, she explained matter-of-factly.
In fact, Monticello hosts speech and debate teams three times a year, which means Monti faculty and students triple-plan, coordinate and maintain smooth gatherings of some of the Northeasts top young debaters and speakers.
The Kaiser Invitational named after a beloved former administrator and team supporter is by far the largest and most complex, said Joyce-Turner, whos called the forensics moderator during this time of year.
Indeed, the main office was a circus of activity Saturday afternoon, with people constantly vying for Joyce-Turners attention on everything from room assignments to judges locations.
Joyce-Turner and her crew of more than 100 students and faculty didnt even necessarily get a chance to hear any debates.
But room after room was full of teenagers from 34 schools scattered about six states New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The closest school was Newburgh (Sullivan Countys seven other public schools dont field debate or speech teams), and a fair amount of private schools participated.
Arguments ranged from a policy debate over how to let the federal government protect natural resources in the ocean, to a Lincoln-Douglas debate regarding whether truth-seeking should take precedence over privileged communication in the U.S. judicial system (i.e., whether or not a private conversation between a lawyer and his client can be included as evidence in court).
Both policy and Lincoln-Douglas debates require certain modes of communication (for example, participants in the policy debate cant face each other directly), and the topics are in line with what every school has been working on for months.
Theres also varsity and junior varsity divisions based not on the 9th-12th-graders grade level, but on their experience (i.e., a first-year debater is called a novice).
Underlying it all is the element of competition.
It takes a lot of practice and preparation, said third-year Monti debater Warren Wuerthner, 16, but once you win that first trophy, it all becomes worth it.
But while beating other teams may be a key motivating factor, these students have been genuinely surprised just to find out how much theyve changed through their participation on the debate and speech team from their vastly improved work ethic to their ease in relating to others.
It definitely enhances your communication skills with people, said 16-year-old Jason Garfinkel, a junior whos spent three years learning the speech side of the team. You can really have good conversations.
Garfinkel added that hes competed at colleges and locations across the Northeast, pitting his speaking and performance skills against other high-schoolers in structured rounds called humorous interpretation (a comedic skit where students must perform numerous roles) or original oratory (where students write their own speeches and are judged accordingly) or prose and poetry (relating the written word in interesting ways).
Its definitely gotten me out of my shell, agreed Monti senior Dave Marmanillo, a 16-year-old first-year team member.
Marmanillo is considering a career in performance, and he said his participation has helped prepare him for a future that includes studying the performing arts at either New York University or Syracuse University.
Another 16-year-old, Murray Echt of Harris, got involved because his older sister was a member, and even though he got his feet wet in the Lincoln-Douglas debate form, he gravitated toward the more performance-oriented speech aspect. Still, he doesnt regret any of his experiences.
Theres an equal mix, he explained. Its really what people feel more confident doing.
For 16-year-old Monti junior Medum Choe, debate has been the right choice.
Its changed my perspective on life and academics, he said. It focuses and hones your intellectual ability.
Like Fuoto, he too said that debate team participation has become like school for me, and school has become the extracurricular [aspect].
And hes not just talking about standing in front of people and debating.
Its the people you meet, he said. You meet the brightest people from every school district.
One of those brightest is Choes assistant coach, Jordan Woods. Monticello Highs Class of 2002 valedictorian, Woods is currently a social studies and pre-med major at Harvard University.
You cant imagine how much it helps them, said Woods, who had returned home this past weekend to assist in the invitational.
He should know, too, since Woods was the president of the team in his senior year.
My most enjoyable experience here was on the debate team, he related. It refines your personality and makes everything so much easier.
Thats why he helps out any chance he gets.
This team definitely means a lot to me, said Woods. You graduate, but you never really leave the debate team. You dont want to leave.
They like to see old teammates, observed Joyce-Turner in a brief moment away from the hustle and bustle of the day. Theres been a tradition here for over 50 years.
The amazing part of that is that the school one of the few public schools in the area to do so funds the team and its trips.
Joyce-Turner gave particular credit to the teams founder, Edwin Brower, and 17-year coach Lee Bradshaw especially for their dedication to spending virtually every weekend during the school year away from home with the debate team.
For the current 55 students and their coaches (including Joyce-Turners assistant, Mary Kemp), it still takes a lot of sacrifices, but its worth it, she said.
It gives them the same teamwork and leadership skills [as sports], but also . . . teaches them to become good speakers, writers and researchers, she said. Even the weakest ones on the team . . . still develop that quality.
And the results?
When they stand up in public, you can tell, she said with obvious pride.