When I was in high school I was a national champion of a certain kind of debate called public forum. I’ve never known how to say that in a way that doesn’t seem weird and boastful, and so I haven’t said much of anything about it in the sixteen years since it happened. I started thinking about it again just recently, though, and I suddenly find myself with a lot to say.
The worst personal essays are narcissistic and self-aggrandizing, and I worry this one is both. I nonetheless believe there’s value—if not for the reader then at least for me—in trying to assign meaning to the parts of my life that stubbornly resist it. “Self discovery is both a quest for meaning and the meaning of life itself,” I say to my husband, because it sounds interesting and smart.
I did debate my freshman year because my older sister did, and I spent most of my childhood and adolescence following directly in her footsteps. If I had considered my strengths and interests apart from my sister, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
High school speech and debate is an intense subculture with its own language and uniform: the classic ill-fitting suit. During debate season, which runs from late fall through spring, high schools host tournaments most weekends. These tournaments are full of teenagers frantically rushing from event to event, giving an impassioned opening statement there, performing a dramatic scene here.
In policy debate, teams of two argue against one another around a central, year-long topic. Public forum was introduced in 2002 as a team debate in contrast to policy, which relied on complex argumentation that was difficult for lay people to understand. Public forum was styled after CNN’s Crossfire, its topic changes monthly, and it is billed as a type of debate that anyone can judge.
My first debate partner was my cousin, Chris. We did policy debate together and had fun at tournaments, though not much success. Chris quit debate at the end of freshman year, and my coach paired me with a new partner, Patrick.
Patrick was a year older than me and had been doing policy debate with the best debater on our team, who had just graduated. Our coach wanted Patrick and I to try public forum, which was still new to Missouri back then.
We did well right away. At the time I credited our success entirely to Patrick, but that’s probably not fair to myself. I was suited to public forum more than I was to policy; I’m an okay big picture thinker, and the format of public forum allows one to think in a broader way that felt more accessible to me than the minutia of policy.
For a year Patrick and I debated together at tournaments around the state, making it to the final round in some of them and winning a few. It was 2004 and we listened to Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in many high school hallways between debate rounds. I don’t remember much else about that time.
Our high school’s debate program was good and had been for a long while, thanks to a string of dedicated coaches and investment on the part of Springfield Public Schools. Qualifying for nationals was not especially noteworthy. That year nationals was held in Salt Lake City, Utah and our school sent maybe six or seven people.
I don’t remember how the tournament was set up exactly; it seems like every team was guaranteed a couple days of debates and then there was a big elimination based on wins and losses up to that point. From then on you were out if you lost one or maybe two debates. One reason I’m fuzzy on these details is that Patrick and I didn’t lose a single debate for the entire tournament.
As the number of remaining teams dwindled, I remember the excitement. We made it far enough that we were top 50 in the county! Then top 25! Top ten! It was an exhilarating few days, and then, impossibly, we qualified for the final round.
We had the morning to prepare, which we spent feeling nervous beyond belief at the Salt Lake City public library. The final round was held in the Mormon Tabernacle, a huge space that seats thousands. On either side of the stage were jumbotrons which projected our faces fifteen feet high. I think there were eleven judges.
That month’s topic was whether national service should be mandated for eighteen-year-olds. The other team won the coin toss and they picked negative, so we found out minutes before the debate began that we were to argue for it. Our case hinged primarily on AmeriCorps and Peace Corps data. I remember flashes: the dizzying expanse of the stage, a moment that felt like fifty years in which I lost track of what I was saying. Then it was over.
I immediately assumed we lost. We went back to the hotel, where I distinctly remember drying the sweat off my pink shirt on the air conditioner vent in my room so I could wear it again to the awards ceremony that night.
The awards ceremony was a kind of hell, in which we waited through many interminable minutes of welcome and awards for other categories. Finally it was our turn. The announcer called the finalists up to the stage, and I remember thinking over and over as we took our places that he would call the other team as the winner, preparing myself for it. He didn’t.
There was a flash of activity, all of which is burned into my mind. Being handed a massive trophy, shaking hands with the other team, being rushed backstage; our coach bubbling, happier than I’d ever seen her; someone giving me a $5,000 scholarship check and inexplicably placing a fresh flower lei around my neck; a man handing me a business card and offering me an internship at the United Nations; a photoshoot with all the winners, during which I tried and failed to lift the heavy trophy above my head as instructed.
“I don’t think people were intimidated by me at all, but it worked to my advantage,” I’m quoted as saying, in a Springfield News-Leader article about the win that was published in the days after. The article notes that I was the only female competitor among the last ten debaters, a fact which I did not remember at all until unearthing the article again earlier this week.
The quote made me laugh out loud when I read it again, not because it’s especially funny, but because it sounds a lot like me. It’s comforting to find myself in this old article, responding as a sixteen-year-old to circumstances that still seem so weird and foreign, even though I lived through them.
I don’t recall ever feeling anything like pride related to the win, though maybe I did once, a long time ago. Memory is so fallible, as my poor grasp of details indicates. While writing this I texted old friends, interrogated my husband: did I ever brag about this to you? Did I talk about it much? Did you know?
“I was confused when you told me,” my husband said, “Because you made it seem like no big deal.”
The feeling I have now when I think of the win is something like bewilderment. What a strange thing to have happened to me, I think. I suspect I’ve always felt this way, as if it happened without any agency on my part, like lightning striking.
I have an impulse to externalize the blame for this lack of pride. There is some blame to be externalized: troubling things people said to me, an entire culture that values the intelligence of boys and men and pathologizes it in girls and women. I feel a pull to dive down into my past and tally up every wrong that has been done to me, excavate each one and force it to be counted.
Here’s one: the year I went to nationals was also the year that I was too dumb to get into the Missouri Scholars Academy. Missouri Scholars Academy is a residential summer camp for gifted high schoolers, held on the University of Missouri campus. My older sister and younger brother both qualified, but I didn’t. I went to nationals instead, which felt to me then like a consolation prize.
My immediate and extended family met us at the airport when we arrived home from Salt Lake City. A family member said: “This goes to show that when one door closes, another opens,” in reference to me not qualifying for Missouri Scholars Academy. My family member surely meant no harm, but the comment reinforced a story I was telling myself about the win being a lesser accomplishment, about me being the dumb one in my family.
Did I create this story myself, I wonder? Or should I dive down further to find out who did? Should I just keep diving until I find someone or something to blame?
Here’s another: judges rank public forum debaters one through four, best to worst. When the ballots came back from the final round, I got more ones than anyone else, which was a shock. Patrick almost always ranked better than me. Someone on my team made a joke about how there must have been a bunch of pedophiles among the judges, since at age sixteen I looked about twelve. I’m sure I laughed.
I wonder now if Patrick and I were more evenly matched than I ever let myself believe. Maybe he tended to score higher than me because were debating in Missouri in the mid-2000s, being judged by rural and suburban adults who had perhaps internalized some ubiquitous societal messages about young women: their intelligence and right to speak and the value of what they’re saying. Or maybe that’s flattering myself, I can’t tell. Patrick was an excellent debater. My scores in the final round may have been nothing more than a fluke. Again, the lightning strikes.
I worry that my impulse to externalize blame is too simple and also too complicated. The reasons why I never felt proud of the win are simultaneously petty grudges and widespread cultural problems, and I can’t parse the two in any meaningful way. Explore the petty grudge, the hurtful thing someone said to me once, and it flips on me, becomes symbolic of some systemic oppression of which that person is only the mouthpiece, himself a victim.
When I think back to that time, what I feel most acutely is that I wasn’t thinking at all. My brain was part jelly, my head halfway open. Lorrie Moore describes this feeling so well in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?: “My childhood had no narrative; it was just a combination of air and no air: waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was liquid, like a song—nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it.”
On the night my daughter was born, I held her while she slept. For most of the night she was still, but there were periods when, underneath her eyelids, her eyes moved. Her tiny hands and feet wiggled. It took me a long time to realize she was dreaming. I watched her for hours, awestruck at the thought of her dreams. What were they about: sensation, lightness, and darkness? No words, just feelings, hopefully good and warm and comforting.
It’s as impossible for me to imagine those dreams as it is for me to imagine much of my daughter’s inner world as a baby. I can’t imagine thought without language, though I spent her first year of life trying and trying.
My high school thoughts seem similar. I had language back then, of course, but lacked all context for the world or my place within it. What was I thinking back before I understood anything about anything? Was I thinking anything at all?
The year after we won, Patrick and I went back to nationals and won fourth place. Patrick graduated, and I quit debate my senior year.
A lot of people, but especially my coach, invested time and energy in my debate ability and success. The fact that I was able to do debate at all, that I attended a school where the team was decently funded, that my parents bought me a wardrobe of debate outfits, that I could afford to debate on the weekends instead of work, speaks to my own enormous privilege. It was selfish of me to quit. And yet even now I can’t make myself feel guilty about it, which—as with so many things in this story—seems so unlike me.
My public speaking ability vanished soon after I quit. These days I often feel a gulping anxiety before speaking in front of even a handful of people. It isn’t just speaking though. I have poor posture; video from my wedding documents that my first dance with my husband was rigid and awkward— all those people looking on. I carry myself like I don’t want people to look at me, let alone listen to me.
I never had a childhood dream of being an actor or a singer, never felt any desire to perform in front of people. Writing has always felt like the only way for me to be truly honest with anyone except maybe my husband, and even then we’ve found it helpful, at times of stress, to write down what we need to say to each other. Before a big move years ago, after many fights, my then-boyfriend handed me a long letter he’d written, explaining how he felt and why. We got engaged the following week.
Even when I did debate I was never at ease in front of people, I was just desensitized to it. Perhaps that’s the most valuable thing debate gave me, beyond the scholarship money: the knowledge that I could reasonably approximate qualities like confidence given the time to practice, that I would be rewarded for acting as if eye contact or projecting my voice came easily to me.
Of course it’s not fair to say this is the only thing debate gave me. High school debate is widely celebrated for the life and career skills it develops in competitors. It taught me how to find good sources of evidence, how to structure an argument, how to think critically and speak carefully. And yet I wonder now: what of the coin toss? Back then, the side on which I was to argue in any given debate was based purely on chance. What did that teach me about conviction and belief during my formative years? That they are mutable, that who I present to be means nothing about who I really am. I fear these lessons stuck, too.
My daughter is reserved. By age two she was speaking in full paragraphs, but only at home. In public she was silent. She will occasionally talk now in public, very quietly, and only under certain circumstances or to people she’s known a long time.
I am forever resisting the impulse to project my neuroses onto her, and reminding myself that there is a lot of time and change ahead. She is only three. But I can’t help thinking: she is so incredible, she is a revelation, she is everything that is good and important and worthwhile. What a loss it would be, not just for her or me but for the entire world, if she could only ever be fully herself with her closest family.
I am swimming toward my lack of confidence, as if there’s a point of origin somewhere buried in my past, a spring bubbling through my whole life. If I could swim fast enough I feel I could reach it and dam it up. But what is my life without this water? Maybe the water is the whole point.
It took me a year of reading only books by women before I could start this blog. I had to be intentional about excising male authors from my reading, not because I don’t love many books written by men, but because I needed to be reminded, over and over again, that the interiority of women’s lives is as valuable as that of all the male protagonists I’d spent most of my life reading about. A part of me is convinced that if I spent a year in a room by myself watching and rewatching Lizzo’s Tiny Desk Concert, I’d develop the self-esteem necessary to feel pride about my long-lost debate skills, or anything else. You coulda had a bad bitch…
In the years since we won, there have been 26 other public forum national champions, and dozens more national champions of policy and Lincoln-Douglas debate, not to mention the national champions of all the other things: hotdog eating and horseback riding and pole vaulting and so much more. Funnily enough, my brother has been dating a former policy debate champion for several years, meaning that I’m not even the most impressive debate champion in my own immediate family.
Self discovery takes time. I was the best in the country at something once, very briefly, a long time ago. When I started thinking about it, it felt at first like maybe all of my life converged at this single point, which I’d previously been ignoring. If I could just unlock this one facet of myself, the secrets about who I was and who I’m meant to be might be revealed.
I’ve spent more time here, running it through my mind, and there is no lock. My lack of confidence, my indecisiveness, my inability to be fully myself in the world—these things are bigger than debate. These are perennial themes of my life, and everything I’ve ever written or made is about them, however obliquely. Maggie Nelson taught me that there is no failure in this: “One may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life” (The Argonauts).
If you Google “the meaning of life,” the whole first page of search results is business blogs about finding new career paths. I am sure of so few things, but I know that business blogs are not the meaning of life. High school debate isn’t it either. But finding oneself in one’s past, trying to become more oneself for once instead of less—that might be it, maybe, or at least part of it.