Making Themselves Heard

By David Ruenzel — April 01, 2002 27 min read
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‘Debate has helped my kids find their voices.’

Eddie Wexler,
Teacher and debate
team coach,
Kennedy High School

Pushing dollies stacked with Rubbermaid crates containing photocopied evidence—termed “tubs” in debate parlance—teenagers pile into Pinole Valley High School, about a half-hour north of Oakland, California. Nearly all these kids are so well-groomed that they could be mistaken for Young Republicans at a nominating convention. The boys are decked out in white shirts, dark suits, and, mostly red, ties. The girls sport suits, too, the majority navy blue or gray, and stockings with shiny black shoes. In just an hour, the first rounds of this local tournament will begin, and the dozens of debaters assembled in the cafeteria on an October Saturday morning are getting nervous. They fling evidence cards at one another, button and rebutton their jackets, and laugh too loudly. You get the sense of adolescents trying hard—but not quite managing—to look very grown up.

In this milieu, the six African American debaters from Kennedy High School in the nearby city of Richmond look like they’re starring in some kind of remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Clad in jeans and sweatshirts, moored at a cafeteria table in the middle of the room, they eye the starch and flannel surrounding them with incredulity. No one but the principal dresses like this in the concrete bunker of a school they attend, where glass windows have been replaced by unbreakable plastic panels. A team member claims almost proudly that according to a list he saw on the Internet, Kennedy High is “one of the five worst schools in the United States.”

Kennedy debater Randy Joseph, who’s wearing an Oakland Raiders jersey, looks around and quips good-naturedly: “That bow tie is blinding. I can’t debate now. All I’ll be thinking is ‘bow tie.’ ” Randy’s teammate, Jael Myrick, scans the almost entirely white and Asian American crowd and notes with little surprise, “Look, no black people.” Randy disagrees. “That guy’s black,” he says, pointing to an African American teenager. Jael checks the guy out, noting his neat suit and tie, then declares, “No he’s not.”

“Papa Wex,” as some students call coach Eddie Wexler, left grad school to teach city kids.
—Cindy Charles

Soon, a half-dozen young men and women decide to entertain themselves by parading around on a stage. The boys snap their suspenders and puff out their chests; the girls work through a series of seductive modeling poses. “Funny how they all get their clothes out of the same J.C. Penney catalog,” snorts Patricia Smith, who’s chosen bell-bottom jeans adorned with aluminum studs for today’s event. A few minutes later, some of the Kennedy debaters jump onstage and playfully mimic the posing of the suits. For a brief moment, everyone in the room shares a laugh.

Then it’s time for the debates to begin, and the Kennedy kids—who will split into teams of two to compete in rooms around the building—gather for a rally of sorts. “We are the underprivileged minorities, and we are representing that,” says Dave Wasserman. “Look, all we have to do is talk our way through this, and that’s our culture. We can do this,” he adds. “We can bullshit.”

But Eddie Wexler, the team’s 28-year-old coach, isn’t so confident about how his students will fare in this, the first tournament of their third season. “They’ll get creamed and be fine,” he predicted a couple of days ago. “Our kids are resilient, and they’ll bounce back.” They have, in fact, rebounded before. In 1999, their first year of debating, the Kennedy squad lost more than 90 percent of its competitions. In 2000, though, they rallied, edging out 12 other schools to grab first place in the Bay Area Urban Debate league.

Today Wexler is skeptical because this tournament, like about half of the eight or so that Kennedy will participate in this year, includes mostly schools from outside the BAUD league. The competitors come from suburban and private schools that have long debate traditions and all the advantages of privilege. As Wexler notes, a fairly wealthy school and family are nearly essential for debaters, who must travel to tournaments, photocopy hundreds of pages of evidence, and, if they want to be truly formidable, attend intensive summer institutes.

That’s where the Urban Debate League, of which BAUD is a member, comes in. The national group arranges funding to member teams, including scholarships for summer programs, and recruits schools in low-income areas to create squads. The goal is to offer UDL kids—mostly minorities, 78 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level—a shot at improving their verbal, research, and critical-thinking skills. And although UDL so far hasn’t completely leveled the playing field, its leaders say debate has unlocked participants’ curiosity about the world and given their self-confidence a much-needed boost.

“We have all kinds of students participating in debate, but some of the best are kids I lovingly call ‘thugs,’ ” says Melissa Maxcy Wade, who created UDL. “These are kids who won’t participate in a system that is oppressing them—they know they’re being screwed. So they disrupt class, get kicked out, etcetera. But in debate, you enfranchise kids. Instead of being bad, they walk around saying: ‘Wow, I just beat Elite Academy. Look at me!’ ”

The UDL began modestly, in 1985, as a summer debate project for city kids in Atlanta. At the time, violent crime was on the rise, and Wade, a former debater and a graduate student at Emory University, believed the activity could transform lives. She was convinced, as she now puts it, that “if students could use words to tackle issues and get the attention of decisionmakers, they would not need to use their fists.” Soon, 14 Atlanta public schools had teams, and in the mid-'90s, the effort caught the attention of philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Now, five years after the New York City-based agency began providing funds, the UDL reaches more than 3,000 students in some 100 schools in 13 cities across the nation.

Kennedy High, resembles a high-security prison. The front of the building is little more than a foreboding concrete wall with unadorned steel doors.

All of the UDL teams engage in policy debate, the granddaddy of the several types of high school debate. It’s known, in large part, for its fast pace: Policy debate is to ordinary dialogue as a greyhound is to, say, a beagle. Competitors try to cram many arguments into their allotted time because the opposing side must refute each point, regardless of how ludicrous sounding. Policy debate is also highly rigorous, and its heavy research component is important for UDL members because, as Wade notes, “our kids possess a powerful oratorical tradition but are content light.”

The structure of policy debate is pretty esoteric, but here’s roughly how it works: Before each round of competition, a team is told whether it will argue for or against this year’s “resolution,” a statement selected by the nationwide high school debate organizing body, the National Forensic League. First, the “affirmative” team sets out the essentials of its case, in no more than eight minutes. Then the “negative” side has up to three minutes to cross- examine, after which it uses the remainder of the eight minutes to present its own case. The other team then cross-examines and continues to build its argument. The teams go back and forth several more times for about an hour, the usual length of a round.

This year, the statement is “Resolved: that the United States federal government should establish a foreign policy significantly limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction.” The Kennedy kids have spent weeks preparing, and in their first Pinole Valley High round, Patricia and Dave are assigned the negative side. They’re up against a duo from Head Royce, a pricey prep school that’s had many winning teams over the years. But Patricia and Dave’s opponents are relatively inexperienced and, as they wheel in their tubs of evidence, look more nervous than the Kennedy kids.

The first Head Royce debater reads at a rapid clip from note cards. He argues that the United States’ current strategy for preventing nuclear attack is doomed to fail, and an accident could lead to nuclear holocaust. Therefore, the United States should act like a true leader and immediately disarm its arsenal, he contends.

Patricia and Dave are ready with a multipronged response. First, they claim that U.S. disarmament won’t eliminate the nuclear threat. The weapons, even if buried, they argue, remain dangerous because they could rupture. The two also take a tack that parses words a bit: They claim that the Head Royce argument is not “topical"—or pertinent to the resolution, as the rules require. “U.S. disarmament is not a true foreign policy because a foreign policy requires interaction with other countries,” Dave insists. “So you’re not being topical.”

“Disarming is interaction,” a Head Royce team member responds. “If we disarm, we’re interacting.”

Dave, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, produces a dictionary. He reads the definition for “interaction,” which has a line about “acting with others.” A Head Royce debater says, with a sneer, “Well, I’m sure we can find a different definition in our own dictionary.”

Jael Myrick says Kennedy, where most students fail state tests, resembles a prison.
—Cindy Charles

Several more twists and turns follow, and ultimately the contest seems to hinge on Head Royce’s insistence that the United States disarm to demonstrate genuine world leadership. “Unfortunately,” one of the debaters claims, “the United States has been acting like a dictator, not a leader. We use nuclear weapons to intimidate others. For instance, we threaten to use nuclear weapons on North Korea, saying, ‘We’ll annihilate you if you attack others.’ ”

“We’ve made that threat on North Korea? Let me see your evidence cards on that,” Patricia demands, referring to the notes that debaters must produce if challenged. The Head Royce debater shrugs weakly: He has none. “So you’re making stuff up now,” Patricia retorts.

It’s obvious that Kennedy has had the upper hand, and yet, when the judge announces a Kennedy victory, Dave and Patricia sit stunned. “You’re saying we won?” Patricia finally asks. “Are you sure?”

Equally unsure of themselves are another Kennedy duo, Randy and Jael. “I don’t think we’ll win,” Randy says before their contest. “But that’s OK. Last year, it was all about winning. This year, I just want to have fun.”

In their appointed classroom, Randy and Jael listen quietly as their El Cerrito High School opponents argue that the United States should put its nuclear weapons on “de-alert” status, partly because the country has had two major false alarms in the past two decades. Jael offers a strong rebuttal, noting that, as September 11 demonstrated, the United States has many enemies who might be emboldened by a more vulnerable U.S. arsenal. But things start to go wrong for the Kennedy team as Randy tries to undermine the false-alarm argument.

“Is it an accident when you have to go to the bathroom but get there just in time, so that you don’t pee on yourself?” he asks. As is his habit, he shrugs his shoulders and gasps in mock exasperation while waiting for a response. One of the El Cerrito students blushes before saying, “I don’t see what you’re getting at.” Randy continues: “Well, if an accident almost occurs, but doesn’t occur, is it really an accident?” The young woman demurs, then says, “Can you give me another example?”

“OK, say you have an Oreo on the table, and it falls off, but you catch it before it hits the floor. Is that an accident?” Jael turns to Randy, shaking his head in disapproval. “What are you talking about?” he moans. “Give it up.”

Scolded by his teammate, Randy switches tacks for a while, then decides to finish with some rhetorical fireworks. “Nuclear war is bad, really bad,” he shouts, pounding his fist on the table in front of him. “With nuclear war you can’t go to McDonald’s, to Jack in the Box. If you don’t want to die, vote for me. . . . I want to live!”

Not surprisingly, the judge announces an El Cerrito victory.

“Oh well,” Randy muses, “I had fun.”

“Yeah,” Jael retorts. “But I want to win.”

As much as Jael hates losing, he dislikes his school even more. And it’s easy to see why. Kennedy High, located about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco in an almost treeless Richmond neighborhood of run-down bungalows, resembles a high-security prison. The front of the building is little more than a foreboding concrete wall with unadorned steel doors. White block letters spelling out the school’s name crawl across the facade. Inside, the building’s just as stark. Although a few planters grace the main lobby, they’re just about the only attempt at beautification. The walls are almost bare, except for an occasional taped-up sheet of paper announcing a dance or a meeting. The floors are concrete, and a dim light enters through the plastic “windows,” a few of which have been pushed out or tagged with graffiti. The metal door of Wexler’s classroom has recently been painted, but so haphazardly that the brush strokes have bled onto the nearby wall.

A fairly wealthy school and family are nearly essential for debaters, who must travel to tournaments, photocopy hundreds of pages of evidence, and, if they want to be truly formidable, attend intensive summer institutes.

Based on appearances alone, a visitor could put a sign in front of the school reading “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” and feel that he was practicing truth in advertising. Ugliness, though, is far from Kennedy’s only problem. Its students rank in the lowest tier on state standardized tests, and SAT scores average 381 in verbal and 386 in math. In addition, the school’s low-income students—more than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—can ill-afford to pay for tutoring or other perks.

Still, the fact that they attend Kennedy doesn’t seem to embarrass the debaters; in fact, it serves as motivation. “We do things to flaunt that we’re from Kennedy,” Randy says. “It’s funny to see [opponents] think, ‘They don’t know nothing; we’re going to beat them.’ And then we beat them, and they’re, of course, shocked.”

Although the Kennedy kids revel in being on the debate team now, getting to this point wasn’t easy. At well-off schools, verbally dexterous kids are naturally drawn to the activity. And their teams are likely to be visible, which helps with recruitment. In fact, as sociologist Gary Alan Fine notes in his recent book, Gifted Tongues, the typical debater is upper-middle- class and a whiz at standardized tests. Fine, who surveyed 400 students from 300 schools across the country, also points out that participants generally are white or Asian American. Only 2 percent of the debaters in his survey were African American, though Fine notes the numbers most likely will grow with the expansion of the UDL.

But in an urban school that doesn’t have a debate tradition, recruitment often is a monumental challenge. Last year, for instance, juniors Patricia Smith and Randy Joseph were in coach Eddie Wexler’s world history class, where he identified them as two very bright and verbal kids. Unfortunately for Wexler, a thin, wiry man almost crackling with energy, they weren’t interested.

“When Mr. Wexler first asked me to join the debate team, I said, ‘Hell no,’ ” Randy recalls over a cut of sirloin at Outback Steakhouse, where several Kennedy teammates have been taken for a special treat after a Monday night practice. “But he was relentless. I didn’t do my homework for a couple days, and he was getting mad. He actually called my mother and said: ‘What’s wrong with your son? He doesn’t do his homework, and he won’t join my debate team.’ My mother, after she got off the phone with Wexler, told me, ‘You’re going to be punished, and your punishment is that you’re going to join that debate team.’ ”

Patricia’s story parallels Randy’s. “Wexler just kept pounding me,” she says. “If you want to know the truth, he kind of threatened me. He said, ‘If you don’t debate, I’m going to give you extra work.’ I checked it out and kind of liked it because I like arguing with people, being right.”

Both she and Randy, it turns out, are quite good at arguing: Since joining Wexler’s team at the beginning of their sophomore year, they’ve been top performers and frequent winners. Whether or not they’re destined for success in college is difficult to predict. (Wexler believes they are.) But without debate, their years at Kennedy surely would have been much less promising.

Randy arrived at Kennedy from New York City, where he lived with his grandmother after his mom moved to California for work. At his school back East, he failed most of his tests. “I thought school was like a TV show” that could be flicked off at will, he explains while glancing at the television in the steakhouse bar, on which his beloved Oakland Raiders are playing. “My grandmother was either going to kill me or send me out to California to live with my mother. She decided it was probably best to send me.”

The Richmond squad is part of the Urban Debate League, which has recruited 3,000 kids across the country.
—Cindy Charles

Like almost all of the 1,100 kids at Kennedy High, Randy landed there by default. California law permits students to apply to public schools outside their enrollment area, and kids who’d otherwise be assigned to Kennedy usually do so. But some get stuck there for various reasons, including missing the application deadline. In Randy’s case, failing grades eliminated all other alternatives. “I tell people I go to Kennedy, and they say: ‘Well, what’s wrong with you? Why do you want to get shot?’ ”

Randy and his fellow debaters have a few nicknames for their school, including “Shoot ‘Em Up Central” and “Kennedy Correctional Facility.” Patricia takes exception to the latter, though. “Actually, prisoners have more rights than we do at Kennedy,” she says between bites of steak. “They never consult the kids on anything and treat us like we’re 5 years old. The school is more interested in suspending kids than in educating them.”

Patricia grew up in a family that moved frequently. During her freshman year, she, her mother, and her sister went from Oakland to Richmond because of what she calls “family difficulties.” It was the middle of the semester, and Kennedy was the only school with seats available for new students. Once there, she says, “I ended up staying,” despite her distaste for the place. “The only thing they teach us is Ebonics,” she says.

Of course, lots of kids moan about their schools, but these complaints are especially valid. Even Wexler, after a particularly frustrating week, said that Kennedy should be shut down. He described bungling leadership (a principal was recently fired for ineptitude), teacher attrition (more than half leave each year), and a tangled bureaucracy (many students didn’t get their academic schedules this year until the start of the second quarter). Although he has since modified that viewpoint—things improved following the hiring of a new, energetic principal—he still is dubious about Kennedy’s long-range prospects.

Despite the obstacles, Wexler feels strongly about his debate kids. “I love them unconditionally,” he says. And in many respects, Wexler serves as a father figure; many of the debaters even call him “Papa Wex.” Several teammates scarcely know their real dads, and many speak contemptuously of fathers who provide no financial support. Randy is so angry that asked about his father one night as the teammates walk across the school’s parking lot, he answers vehemently, “If I see my daddy, I’ll stab him.” His peers stare at Randy to see if he’s joking. “I mean it,” he adds.

At a school like Kennedy, the debate team generally functions under the radar. Most of their fellow students, the debaters say, don’t even know there is a team. But those who do know are respectful of this rather unusual avocation. At Kennedy, winning is valued, be it in basketball or debate, and the fact that the team beats opponents has given it at least some cachet.

Somewhat surprisingly, debate is held in higher regard by the kids’ peers than by many of their parents. “You’d think that the parents would be sympathetic to their kids’ debating, but that’s not always the case,” Wexler says. “Some don’t like the fact that they’re gone so many weekends and unable to help around the house. Others, while they want the best for their children, just don’t see the value of debate. They’ll say things to their kids like, ‘You do enough talking around here already.’ ”

The students echo Wexler. “My mom doesn’t like it,” says one debater. “She wants me looking after my brother and sister.” Another adds that her mother can’t understand why her daughter comes home from meets feeling exhausted. “She says to me: ‘How can you be tired from a lot of talk? All you’re doing is running your mouth off all day.’ ”

At a school like Kennedy, the debate team generally functions under the radar. Most of their fellow students, the debaters say, don’t even know there is a team.

Despite such negativity, debate has served the Kennedy kids well. The eight to 12 teammates who regularly attend the twice-weekly practices—the ones good enough to compete on the junior varsity and varsity levels—are determined to go to college. And there’s good reason to think they’ll make it. For one thing, many colleges are interested in recruiting urban debaters: In fact, a consortium of 40 has established scholarships for students from Urban Debate League schools, which serve socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

For another, the kids are doing well in school. Although most were at least C students before, many have significantly improved their academic performance since joining the team. Generally, they have grade-point averages in the B range, and some, like Patricia, are straight-A students.

What’s more, all of the debaters have learned important skills, and they benefit from the support of a peer group that values academic success. Several plan to become lawyers, which sociologist Gary Alan Fine’s research indicates is the most common career choice for high school debaters. Others have thought about going into business. “I can see myself presenting business proposals to large audiences,” Patricia explains. “I’ve learned to be comfortable talking before a crowd.

“Above all, she enjoys the ego boost debate provides. When, in the heat of competition, she devises a particularly clever argument, she silently compares her brainpower with her opponents': “Oh my God, you’re stupid, but I’m smart,” she likes to say to herself. She also appreciates the opportunity to learn to speak well. “You need this skill in life because life is unpredictable, and you need to talk your way out of things,” she points out. “Also, I used to be a really quiet person and avoid people by reading books. But debate has become an outlet for me to express my feelings.”

Randy was more interested in the competitive side of debating at first, but now he values its other aspects even more. “What I like best about debate is how it’s changed me,” he confesses. “It used to be that when I opened the newspaper, I read the sports section and the comics. Once I got into debate, I started to look at the front page, and this year I actually start by reading the editorials.”

The activity also has served well the “second tier” of Kennedy competitors—the 10 or so who debate at the novice level and attend practice less regularly. Although Wexler wishes all the kids would show up for every practice, he believes occasional attendance is better than none. And he recognizes that some members are faced with extremely difficult emotional and family circumstances. One girl, for instance, now lives in a foster home because her mother, a drug user afflicted with AIDS, can no longer look after her. Another girl transferred to Kennedy after having been severely beaten by a girls’ gang at an Oakland high school. Her mother credits debate with helping her daughter acquire self-confidence, due in large part to the camaraderie that exists among team members.

What debate is doing for the Kennedy kids, it’s also doing, UDL leaders claim, for the vast majority of urban participants nationwide. While the organization has only anecdotal evidence at this point—most UDL teams haven’t been around long enough to compile meaningful data—it has launched a study to measure academic achievement that will be completed in 2003. As for BAUD, now in its third year, Director Jennifer Johnson says her informal research shows improved grades, better attitudes about school, and increased confidence.

Even if quantitative evidence does eventually demonstrate the benefits of urban debate, it faces a number of significant challenges. For one thing, grants from Soros’ Open Society last only three years, after which recipients must secure their own funding. In some cities, such as Chicago, the board of education has stepped in to support debate, and in others, activists are trying to garner long-term foundation support. In either case, teams must compete for funding with a plethora of causes, including efforts to raise standardized test scores, a major focal point for schools.

But the most difficult challenge, everyone associated with urban debate acknowledges, is finding and retaining good coaches. As BAUD’s Johnson notes, teachers recruit the team, inject enthusiasm into it, and give up a lot of weekends to attend competitions. “The teacher is the key to everything in urban debate,” she says.

Her high school may be failing, but since joining the debate team, this California senior is headed for success.
—Cindy Charles

It was as a first-year teacher at Kennedy, back in 1998, that Wexler was recruited in the hallways by a UDL staffer. Before coming to the school, Wexler, a native New Yorker, was a graduate student in education policy at the University of California-Berkeley. He quit, though, when he realized he wanted to stop writing about educational problems and do something about them instead. He had no illusions about the life of an urban teacher—he fully anticipated its frustrations—but he also felt he could make a difference in at least some kids’ lives. Within a few weeks of becoming a coach, Wexler had recruited a dozen debaters. Eventually, the history teacher who harassed his students to join the squad became what Johnson calls “the most committed, enthusiastic debate coach we’ve had.”

But Wexler, so full of initial enthusiasm, was confessing to being weary just two months into his third year at Kennedy. “It’s not coaching the debate team that has burned me out—in fact, debate kept me from quitting last year—but everything else about this school. Teachers who won’t teach, kids who won’t learn, a school that simply doesn’t work.”

Two months later, on a gray December day, he was sitting in his classroom when a kid in the hallway walked by and threw a fistful of AA batteries through Wexler’s open door. It was not, at least by Kennedy standards, a particularly egregious incident. But it foreshadowed Wexler’s decision, made just a couple of weeks later, to leave Kennedy.

“I’ve got to try something else, maybe teaching overseas,” Wexler admits. “Teaching at an urban school like this, if you take it seriously, can exhaust you to the bone. You can begin to feel very bitter. For instance, I spend at least a weekend a month at debate tournaments. And often I’m feeling beat-up, disenfranchised before the tournament even begins. After all, all week long you put up with disrespectful and passive students, carefully thought-out lesson plans that proved absolutely futile. It all stays with you, like a mild hangover.”

Wexler says he’s recruited a committed teacher to coach the team next year, so he doesn’t feel so guilty about departing. He also is convinced that he’s leaving the debate kids with greatly enhanced skills. Still, he doesn’t buy into the belief shared by some UDL leaders that urban students someday will be able to compete evenly with those from affluent schools, though he makes an exception for top competitors like Randy, Jael, and Patricia.

“Our kids not only don’t have the same resources—they debate under so many constraints,” he says. “So many of our students work at jobs after school or take care of siblings. A lot are doing the laundry, the cooking, the help with homework. And the little practical considerations can be overwhelming. Some students, for instance, even have trouble finding transportation to the weekend tournaments.”

It doesn’t help that the debate season is nine months long. Whereas high school sports teams play for a few months, then battle for first place in a regional playoff, the top debate spot goes to the school that accumulates the most wins at the end of the season. Maintaining a winning attitude for almost an entire school year is not easy.

Case in point: Today’s BAUD tournament, taking place on a December day at the University of California-Berkeley, is decidedly less charged than the one that occurred at Pinole Valley High two months ago. The Kennedy kids are not as sharp or energetic this time around, and the team’s disposition mirrors today’s weather—cold and rainy.

In a debate against a team from San Francisco, Randy and Jael become visibly frustrated as their opponents undermine their pro-disarmament case, arguing that countries would hide weapons. “No, they won’t!” Randy cries out, exasperated, during his rebuttal. “The weapons are big, chunky metal! You can find them! So our disarmament plan [prevents] everyone on earth dying.” When he’s through, he and Jael idly chitchat as the other side makes its case. Then, as if to show just how bored he is, Randy begins studying an advertising flier someone left on the table.

‘Our kids not only don’t have the same resources—they debate under so many constraints. Some students, for instance, even have trouble finding transportation to the weekend tournaments.’

Eddie Wexler,
Teacher and debate
team coach,
Kennedy High School

At the round’s conclusion, the judge announces a Kennedy defeat, though he says Randy and Jael showed confidence and provided convincing rebuttals. Then he admonishes them. “You need to look like you’re interested,” he says. “Not paying attention hurts your credibility.” Later, Wexler confirms that, on occasion, he has to remind his kids of good manners.

Things don’t go much better for Patricia and Deana, another Kennedy debater, during a round later that morning, though the team they’re up agains—from San Francisco’s Balboa High School—is equally fidgety. The Balboa debaters make faces at each other as the Kennedy team argues its case, and one girl, though convincing in her argument, has an annoying habit of snapping her fingers while speaking. At one point, her partner announces that he has to go to “the can.” Minutes later, Deana declares that she doesn’t feel well and also heads for the bathroom. An obviously frustrated Patricia apologizes to the judge, saying, “She has a lot of physical problems.”

After the match is over, the Kennedy kids are told they won, but that’s only because the other team was so weak. And this judge also reprimands the youngsters, saying: “You need to take it more seriously, professionally. Don’t get up to go to the bathroom. Don’t pack up your things until the debate is done. Don’t make faces. In short, strive for decorum.” Few, if any, such speeches are necessary at non-BAUD events.

At the noontime lunch break, Wexler is feeling frustrated but not completely discouraged. He repeats a sentiment he’s noted before: “They’re teenagers and have their bad days. But they’ll rebound and be fine.”

He’s right. About a month later, at the end of January, Randy and Jael do very well. In fact, they and Wexler are later recognized at a school board meeting for their outstanding achievements. So far this year, the duo has won more than 75 percent of its rounds. Patricia, who is in a close race for school valedictorian—her grade-point average is now well over 4.0—missed the January competition because she was taking the SAT. Now she’s preparing with the team for the upcoming BAUD tournament at Stanford University. She’s also thinking about applying to attend college there, though she worries that Stanford doesn’t have much of a public relations program, the field she recently decided she wants to enter.

Of course, not many urban debaters win as often as Randy, Jael, and Patricia. And all of them, from the top kids to the less talented ones, constitute a small percentage of the inner-city school population. Urban debate, as its advocates acknowledge, is more of a “one-person-at-a-time” initiative than a systemic reform. But this, Wexler insists, is actually its strength.

“Urban debate is transformative in an individual sense. It directly changes the lives of kids in a way that the big, sweeping school reforms do not,” he contends. “My kids’ analytical skills have taken off. And some of the most shy, timid kids have been emboldened in the most positive way.

“Debate has helped my kids find their voices,” he continues. “And now, in a society that has pretty much ignored them, they will have a greatly improved ability to make themselves heard.”


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