Mar 26, 2014

joy in doubt: the State Public Forum Championship

Until a few days ago, it had been an up-and-down year for my Public Forum squad. Back in 2013, we had not one, but two teams preparing for Nationals, the first time we had ever closed out PuFo in the Western Washington District. However, in the 2013-14 season, not only did we fail to qualify a single team for Nationals, we had just one team make State. Our previous best finish was second place at the Puget Sound Invitational. I wasn't going to complain if that was the end of our season, but, to be honest, I would've been disappointed.

But we still had a shot at State. So, on March 21st, Max and Tate headed back to the University of Puget Sound, researched and ready to debate the merits of single-gender classrooms in American public schools.

After the first day of competition, Capital's duo were 6-0, earning the top seed in the elimination rounds. That gave us a first round bye on Saturday morning. I figured we had better run a full practice round to warm up, so we trudged over to Howarth Hall, found an empty room, and debated, Max and Tate running their Pro case against me--and their own Con.

If there had been a judge in the room, I'm guessing he would've voted for Max and Tate. They held their own against my improvised rebuttals, and got me thinking that a state title was well within reach. I didn't want to say anything, though, and went back to the judging pool, trusting that they'd be fine.

After the eighth round, Tate's brother Ben, who had been judging for CHS late in the season, decided to quit watching Capital's round--they were getting too nerve-wracking. I enlisted him to help set up the room for the final round, and we dragged tables and chairs around, chatting to stave off our nervous anticipation, and then greeting the community members who had volunteered to judge the final round.

Then the text came: Max and Tate had won their eighth and semifinal round, and, for the final, were about to face a fantastic Mount Si team--the team that had defeated them to win the Puget Sound tournament in January. The prospect of redemption was just too perfect.

Even better: once everyone had arrived and the coin toss started the round, we won the toss. "We'll take--" and I already mentally finished the sentence. Max and Tate always chose Con. They were undefeated in seven rounds running the Con. I liked their Con case better. I thought the Con arguments were stronger. Of course they would take...

"--second speaker."

And then Mount Si took the Con.
It took me a moment to register what had happened. I turned to Tate's older brother, Ben, who had been judging for us late in the season. "They picked 2nd speaker. Why? Why in the world wouldn't they pick the Con?"

"They felt pretty confident after running it against you," he said.


Thirty-five minutes later, I wasn't feeling too great about our chances. I thought the Con had established a lot of doubt about our Pro's statistics, and that we were relying too heavily on the choice argument--"let every kid, every parent have the choice that otherwise is only for the rich." The opposition was also a little bit smoother in delivery. As the round wrapped up and the judges began their internal deliberations, scribbling endlessly on their ballots as the room waited in silence, I whispered to Ben: "I think we lost."

Ten interminable minutes passed. Ben quietly noted that the longer it took, the better he liked our chances. That seemed right.

Five agonizing minutes later, at long last, the ombudsman gathered up the ballots and announced, "By a 2-1 decision, your state champions: Capital High School!" I leaped out of my seat, just about hitting the ceiling. I had known it was possible, but I couldn't believe it. As the judges began their post-round critiques, the two voting for CHS talked about the strength of the choice argument in pushing their vote for the Pro.

The dissenting judge, though, said almost word-for-word everything I had been thinking throughout the round.

Good thing there weren't more of me in the room.

The upshot: your 2014 Washington State Champions in Public Forum are two of Capital's finest, a class act who never doubted themselves, who worked harder than anyone to reach the summit, who ended up going undefeated in the most intense and thrilling fashion.

Am I sorry for doubting my own team? No, not really. Debate is as subjective as it gets. But on the right side of the ballot, the doubt created by that subjectivity can lead to the greatest joy. As the coach of this year's champions, I couldn't be happier.

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