How debate team became cool

The high school debaters featured in Cross-X can cram a long string of words into a breathless minute. Journalist Joe Miller reproduces that intensity by cramming at least three intertwined stories into one book.

The first tale is the stuff of Hollywood flicks: Underdogs from the inner city surmount personal and institutional barriers to take the national debate circuit by storm. But understanding this story requires an examination of everything from the quirks of the debate subculture to the racial and political dynamics of education. Finally, Miller himself becomes the protagonist in a third narrative strand, utterly abandoning his original journalistic objectivity.

There would be no story to tell if not for Jane Rinehart, coach of the successful debate squad at Central High School in Kansas City, Mo. Rinehart's room is a jumble of energy, where, instead of trying to subdue her students' cockiness, she channels it into a competitive machine. She's always on the lookout, Miller writes, for "kids who buck authority, who are too smart for their own good."

Up at 4:30 a.m. and not home until 7 at night, Rinehart embodies the idea that education is a calling: She refuses to lower her expectations for her students, who might otherwise languish at low-performing Central. She puts up with their hip-hop music but doesn't hesitate to cut off profanity by barking, "Mouth!" (Still, there's no shortage of profanity here.)

As Miller tags along during the 2002-03 season, he looks beyond the surface, befriending a cluster of the debaters.

They live in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. One copes with the periodic reappearance of his drug-addicted mother; another has a mother everyone loves, but lives in a falling-down house with no phone. On road trips, they flirt one moment and contemplate the existence of God the next. One young man is captivated by the concept of infinity: "If the universe is endless," he says, "there's always somethin' to learn." Debate helps to make the learning feel relevant.

Assigned to two-person teams, the kids come to depend on one another, though they often pretend they don't. The posturing fits well in the debate world, with its own lingo and rules.

The resolution they have to debate, sometimes for and other times against, is that the federal government should substantially increase mental health services. But the arguments they construct veer off into dramatic tangents such as the threat of nuclear annihilation. In cross-X (cross-examination), teams challenge one another with blistering confidence, sometimes provoking tears.

One of the central figures is Marcus Leach, a senior on the Central squad.

Rinehart sees him as the most brilliant debater she's ever coached, as someone who has "the mind of a great general." In tournament scenes, you can almost feel the sweaty excitement: "Marcus's rebuttal speeches were marvels of performance..... [H]e managed to work into his machine-gun rhythm notes of urgency and emotion, like a barn-burning sermon sped up with the latest sound engineering software."

Marcus relishes his opportunities to prove people wrong when they look down on urban debaters, students of color who stand out amid the largely white crowds at national tournaments. But as Marcus swings between a determination to win and bouts of boredom when he threatens to quit, Miller crosses his own point of no return. He persuades Marcus not to skip a major tournament.

"I beat myself up for days, thinking I'd committed the worst journalistic sin," he writes, but he doesn't regret his involvement as the team goes on to win.

Just when the Hollywood story could wrap up, the book takes an unpredictable turn. Miller almost foreshadows it early on: "I came in thinking this game of debate, with its recorded history dating back to 500 B.C. ... might well be the ultimate savior for forgotten inner-city teens. By the end, I would be on a campaign to change the game itself, believing wholeheartedly that these black kids from the East Side of Kansas City are the real saviors, with their own plan to save a game so intrinsic to democracy...."

As Marcus and another senior take recruiting trips to colleges, they discover a team that's concerned less about winning and more about taking on the trappings of debate, which they see as exclusive and prejudiced. They use rap music and impassioned speeches to make the point about the need for a diversity of voices at the tables of power. The following year, some Central debaters (with Miller as assistant coach) decide to take up that activist style – challenging opponents to see debate's potential to be more truly democratic.

The author's dual role as chronicler and advocate makes for some awkward passages in the book. It's distracting to be reading along questioning his judgment as to when to be one of the guys and when to intervene. When he chaperones a few debaters on recruiting trips to colleges, Miller witnesses the hard-partying side of the debate scene, complete with alcohol and drugs; he lets his charges make their own choices. (Fortunately they only go for the alcohol, in moderation.)

Nonetheless, "Cross-X" is to be lauded for its you-are-there feeling and for not shying away from subjects that defy easy answers. It allows us into the powerful and poetic minds of young people – while pointing out how rarely those in impoverished schools receive such genuine intellectual nurturing.

Stacy A. Teicher is a Monitor staff writer.

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