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Geek Speek

Keeping up with a fast-talking high school debate team


Published March 24, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

It's 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday, and I'm riding in the back of a rented 12-passenger van, surrounded by the Burlington High School debate team. We're heading to Hanover, New Hampshire for an NFL tournament. No, not the National Football League -- the National Forensics League; forensics in this context refers not to crime solving, but to competitive public speaking.

I know, I know, what could possibly be geekier, right? Debate is, like, the dorkiest extra-curricular activity ever invented. There are no cheerleaders and rarely any spectators. Even the marching band has more fans.

But after spending a long day absorbed in the bizarre, esoteric world of policy debate -- the form practiced most often by high schoolers and college students across the country -- I'm prepared to argue that debaters deserve a little more respect. They work as hard as any athlete, spending months, even years learning how to make a case or tear one apart. And the skills they acquire along the way -- the ability to think on their feet, to research, present and process a logical argument, not to mention to see both sides of it -- are relevant to the larger world. Er, sort of.

Today's tournament is the district qualifier for the NFL's June National Policy Debate Championship in Salt Lake City. Two pairs of debaters will emerge from the event with bids to the Nationals, and Burlington's coach, Brett Kernoff, has assured me that BHS will win at least one of them. "There is no one at this tournament who can beat Joshua and Sarah," he told me before we left.

His pronouncement might sound arrogant -- especially since Joshua Kernoff is his son -- but it's probably also true. For one thing, there just aren't many debaters in the Northeast; only four schools are at this tournament, three of them from Vermont. And the teams are small: Hartford High School has registered only two kids.

Though the Vermont Debate and Forensics League lists 10 teams, there are only 30 to 35 active debaters in the state, and 14 of them -- nearly half -- attend BHS. The school swept the state debate championships, winning every single award. Even the first-year debaters, called novices, aced every round in which they competed. Joshua Kernoff is their captain, or, as some of them say half-jokingly, their dictator. He and Nick Landsman-Ross, a BHS alum who now debates for UVM, resurrected the team in the fall of 2000; BHS had dropped it in the late 1970s. Kernoff spends 25 to 30 hours a week on debate. It's pretty clear that he and his partner Sarah Hasazi are the favorites.

One reason why BHS dominates the state is because they frequently compete outside of it. Few Vermont teams ever travel to out-of-state tournaments. Consequently, the average Vermont debater logs maybe 20 rounds a season. This year alone, Burlington's active novices debated between 40 and 50 times. Joshua Kernoff is at 120 and still climbing. Then factor in the weeks BHS debaters spend prepping at summer debate camp and Brett Kernoff's grueling three-to-seven-days-a-week practice schedule, and the result is unbeatable. "It's like the Red Sox playing the Milton High School team," says filmmaker John O'Brien, who co-coaches the team at Sharon Academy.

The kids in the van don't look that different from your average American teenager. They play the rap music loud, they smack each other and goof off in the van. A couple of times during the ride, the three kids in the front row do a dance routine to a song by Sublime. Senior Joshua Kernoff -- a compact guy distinguishable by his large, brown afro -- junior Sarah Hasazi and sophomore Alex Shepard jab their elbows to the right, then to the left in unison. The five freshmen laugh and cheer. In the cacophony, someone yells, "They're doing the team dance!"

But while they're definitely not a young army of suits -- most of them are dressed casually -- this group does resemble an army. All five freshmen wear blue and white BHS T-shirts or sweatshirts that read "BHS Debate 2004." That's normal enough -- the hockey team probably has sweatshirts that say "BHS Hockey." But when one of the kids turns around, I'm staring at a particularly sinister-looking skull, along with the words, "The Punishers" and "You're not hardcore 'till you debate hardcore." Truthfully, it's a little creepy. And also, I think, kinda cool.

But their sweatshirts aren't the only thing that sets them apart. Once we're on the road, instead of fishing for their personal CD players, the kids whip out orange and yellow highlighters, and battered, cardboard "expando" folders full of "evidence."

The evidence consists of photocopied articles they'll use to prove their cases during the day. Since all of the national and state-wide debate leagues agree to discuss only one topic each year, teams accumulate vast stockpiles of material for both the affirmative and negative positions. They carry these stockpiles in their folders, which they then fit into large plastic tubs. The van is packed with several of these tubs, which carry up to 5000 documents each, and which the kids have decorated with bumperstickers. One bears the imperative, "Say No to Ritalin."

As you might expect, their conversations are a little strange. When freshman Alison Flint remarks that her friend mispronounced "Foucault," she giggles, as do some of the others, as if the French philosopher's name were a household word. Later, while she's patiently trying to explain the debate rules, I hear Meaghan Lopes giving instructions to her debate partner, Spencer Wright. "If we hit Bryan on aff and he asks us to disclose," she tells him, "let me handle it."

Before embarking on my trip, I spoke with several Vermont debate coaches, all of whom warned me that I wouldn't be able to understand the language of high school policy debate. I didn't buy it. I'm not even worried when I can't follow Flint's explanation in the van. I figure I'll watch a round or two and pick it up as I go along. I'm wrong. In case you're thinking of attending one of these tournaments, be forewarned: this approach is deeply, horribly flawed.

Oh sure, a round of policy debate looks fairly uncomplicated on the surface: two teams of two debaters each have an hour and a half to argue over this year's resolution -- in this case, a statement about the U.S. government forming a consistent marine policy. One team presents a plan that will solve the resolution (the affirmative side), the other team (the negative side) picks apart that plan. The round is composed of eight speeches. The first four last eight minutes a piece, the second four each last five. Each team has five minutes over the course of the round to prepare rebuttals, and after the first four speeches, the debaters, like lawyers, have a few minutes for cross-examination.

But debaters don't just argue that their plans are good for the economy, or good for the environment; they follow them all the way to their logical ends. In the first round I watch two novice debaters from Hanover High School -- one of whom takes notes on a laptop -- present the affirmative, while BHS novices Ian Hemley and Alex Shepard go negative. The affirmative team suggests banning low frequency sonar (LFA) because it kills whales. But they don't just present evidence that whales are dying. They also talk about the Navy's use of LFA in Okinawa, and how it could kill off the duogon -- an animal that is central to Okinawan culture. This, they say, is clearly environmental racism, which we should oppose because we have a moral imperative to fight racism. Refusing to fight racism eventually leads to race hatred, which results in genocide.

Hemley and Shepard argue that by banning LFA -- which, they point out, has not been proven to kill duogon -- the U.S. will be embracing the precautionary principle. This policy will inhibit new scientific developments like advances in biotechnology, which could cure AIDS. This will lead to extinction. Hemley, an intense, brown-eyed freshman who looks like he's due for a growth spurt, also argues that banning LFA sonar will make President Bush look like an environmentalist, which could ensure his re-election, which will certainly lead to war with Iran. This, he concludes, will lead to global, thermonuclear obliteration.

At the end, the judges -- most of them coaches or college debaters -- have to decide which team presented the more effective argument. Did the teams have evidence to support their claims? Was the other team able to counter their arguments? Were any points left unanswered? And they evaluate whose impact is more critical -- genocide or nuclear war? This is what it comes down to, folks. Listening to a few hours of this makes you wonder how we've survived as long as we have. (FYI: nuclear war trumps genocide).

But don't let my summary fool you -- while it's taking place, I actually can't follow the debate at all. I've reconstructed it afterward by talking to the debaters and their coaches. During the debate itself, I really only catch a few words, like "Bush re-election," "body bags," and "eye to eye with Vladimir Putin." It's not that they're speaking in a foreign language; they're just talking very, very fast.

Because they're judged on how much information they present to support or counter a particular case, debaters learn to speak quickly. They also learn to process speedy speech and track arguments, a technique called "flowing." These skills are essential for debaters who compete nationally, as the BHS debaters do. David Gale, who coaches the Otter Valley Union team, estimates that most Vermont debaters average about 150-200 words per minute. Good national debaters, like Kern-off and Hasazi, speak approximately 400 per minute.

Sure enough, when I finally see the two debate, I can't believe my ears. The novices were fast but unpolished, their speech peppered with the occasional slip, pause or "um." Not so Kernoff and Hasazi. Their speech -- and that of their competitors, Hanover High's best varsity team -- is nearly seamless. Hasazi's gasps for breath come so infrequently and urgently, she seems to be drowning in her words.

Kernoff seems comfortable under the pressure -- so much so that he kicks off his Birkenstocks and scurries from his laptop, to his piles of evidence, to the podium, in his sweat socks. When he speaks, he knits his dark eyebrows together and points with his right hand as if he were conducting a symphony. Most of the other BHS debaters gesture rhythmically with their hands when they speak -- like rappers or slam poets -- but Kernoff actually seems to be punctuating his points.

He starts his last speech with a gimmick. "Knock knock," he says. "Who's there?" answers Hasazi. "The T police," he says. That's all I catch before he picks up speed again. The Hanover debaters roll their eyes. They seem exasperated. Brett Kernoff tells me later that they probably knew the game was up. "Josh never uses that unless he's sure he's won," he says. It's true: Kernoff and Hasazi win the round, and emerge from the tournament undefeated. The novices have gotten knocked out, but the two varsity debaters are headed to the nationals.

Despite their losses, and a freak snowstorm, the teenagers are happy and hyper on the way home. There's more smacking, more dancing.

In the back seat, the novices talk about next year. Kernoff is graduating, and they'll be varsity. They're already scouting eighth graders to bring into the fold. With 14 debaters, BHS is already the biggest team in the state. Because of its emerging dominance, and a lively debate about their place in high school debate, Brett Kernoff is talking about splitting the team into two groups -- kids who will compete nationally, and those who will stay in Vermont.

But this year's not over yet. Tomorrow the team has to report to a car wash, regardless of the weather. They need the money, because the school district doesn't give them a dime. Everybody groans when Joshua Kernoff reminds everyone just before they pull into Thrifty Car Rental to drop off the van. I guess you have to fundraise hardcore to debate hardcore.