Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Debate Team

From the moment I was tapped to coach the debate team I knew exactly who I wanted: Brianna, Celine, Elliott and Stark.

Our school has the nasty habit of blindsiding students into bringing glory and renown to our alma mater. In part our administrators are blameless, at least this time. The notice did not come until 3 weeks before competition. On the other hand, other institutes have Speech and Debate built into their curriculum, so they have students ready whenever competition comes up. We do not offer that elective.

To my knowledge, this is the fifth time University of Puget Sound has challenged Chinese universities to a Worlds debate, but the first time we were invited to compete. If this were regarding the yearly speech competition, my feathers would be ruffled. Every year I’ve been here we’ve selected a participant or two, based solely on teachers’ perception of that student’s ability to speak English. With virtually no coaching and very little preparation time, these orators were expected to sweep the competition. How could they, with the little we gave them?

For the past couple of speech contests I have been called on to help groom the kids. Tony and Evan did not exactly blow the competition away but did decently, for first time entrants with minimal training. Apparently, my little bit of coaching did help. Both came away with honorable mentions, whereas in the years before, our school never even received citation. They were still heartbroken at not having done better, flagellating themselves in spite of everyone’s sincere praise at the efforts.

And so it came, when we received invitation to participate in this debate debacle, I was immediately appointed as team leader. First, I had to be a team former. We had no team. That is where Bri, Celine, Elliott and Stark come in. when I asked if they would represent our school at the meet their answer was a definitive, resounding ‘YES’.

You might remember Celine from my visit to Wu Dang Shan (see ‘Start of Wu Dang Shan’ entry, posted September 2013). Stark is a quiet boy, a ‘behind the scenes’ type of guy: resourceful, determined, and above all else, inquisitive. He likes to present topics for our class discussions, and is the one who introduced me to a movie download website I now use regularly. Elliott is an affable young man who speaks English with a flawless British accent. I have no idea where he got it from. Brianna is a Minnie Mouse of a girl, a genuine sweetheart I liken to a volcano. She is so meek and demure on the outside with a fiery stab of intelligence and an incomparable joie de vivre. She would understand that last bit: she decided to teach herself French last year and is now good enough to hold conversation in that tongue. She is the one that gifted me Dog and Cat, my short-lived turtle pets.

I had the privilege of teaching them last year, and now have them in class this year. This year, my Friday mornings are always joyful. Not just because of those 4; the whole class is a pleasure, and they’re mine to enjoy until June. Hopefully the time won’t fly by so fast.

Unfortunately, these 2 weeks have flown by. Coaching is coaching… not that I know that much about it. The contestants will learn debating minutia mostly in the training session sponsored by the host university, the day before competition. My special challenge in coaching these Chinese students into a typically western activity, such as debating or speech giving is body language and speaking tone.

Usually the Chinese outward expression remains stoic, letting words carry all the weight of the message. I contend that, in order to deliver a persuasive argument, tone, voice modulation and body movement all play a vital role. Another crucial factor is that each student must know him/herself well enough to effectively use those non-verbal communication tools. For these past 2 weeks we have drilled on how to walk, talk and move to match each personality. That means I have to know them well, so that I can point out personality details they might not be aware of.

All teachers with English classes were asked to recruit potential candidates. One week into our 2 week preparation window, our team doubles. Instead of training 4 kids, there are now 8. The new additions are all freshmen, and show a lot of potential. Daisy and Bruce look like they are boyfriend and girlfriend, deeply in love. We were all surprised that they had only just met on the way to my house. They make a great team… for the debate. Perhaps also as life partners. Wouldn’t it be crazy if that is how things turn out?

Dorwyn and Jack were the last additions, only having the benefit of 2 training sessions. Nonetheless, Dorwyn impressed all of us. She radiates joy and you can hear her smile in her voice. She is not an English major but speaks better English than some of my students. Her enthusiasm is boundless. I felt terrible that her partner, Jack wouldn’t say a word. He volunteered to compete, hoping it would break him out of his shyness, but with only one week till competition and him not having said very much, I worried that our effusive Dorwyn would suffer from his seeming inability.

I believe the most important duty a coach has is to foster a sense of team spirit. With this team, that was not a problem at all. No one held themselves rigidly onto their assigned partner and everyone supported everyone, even Jack – although everyone worried about his ability to carry his share. Of course I had drinks and a few snacks for them; practice lasted 3 hours each day. They would pour each other drinks, make sure everyone had something to nibble on and, if one liked a particular snack, the others made sure he/she got the lion’s share. In short, they bonded. I fell in love with them.


The whole crew is at the house. Stark informs me his grandmother just died 2 days before, but he was OK to compete. He would only need to leave training early that day. Elliott expresses concern for the next day’s session; he might not be able to come. Dorwyn blew us all away. Bruce discovered ginger ale (bought at Metro). He shared the can with Daisy. Bri is nervous and Celine does her best to cheer her on. Today’s exercise is to find one word to describe yourself and build your speech introduction around that word. Jack still won’t talk. That days’ training ended in a Q&A session.


I receive a message that, contrary to the invitation, each school could only send 2 teams. Originally the summons allowed as many teams as each school wants to send. After our mad scramble to draft our 4 latecomers, and them working so hard, all for the promise of at least a certificate of participation and a measure of honor, we had to cut our team in half. No, scratch that: I had to cut our team in half.

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