Fresno high school debaters off to national tournament

The Fresno BeeJune 14, 2013 

They're word geeks, but they don't sweat it.

After school, they research current events and do speed-reading drills; on the weekends, they cart around laptops and plastic tubs full of news articles to speech and debate tournaments.

"We don't mind being bookworms because we get to be bookworms with our friends," said Esther Levitt, a junior at Bullard High School.

These are the high school debaters from Fresno Unified School District. On Saturday, Levitt and four students from Edison High School are headed to Birmingham, Ala., for the National Speech and Debate Tournament -- the capstone event of the year for 4,000 teen orators, who spend their free time arguing at 300 words per minute.

The usual wordsmiths didn't hold back their excitement during an interview this week.

"I'm stoked," said Amer Rashid, a just-graduated Edison student who will compete at nationals in international extemporaneous speaking, an event focused on world affairs.

Debate, and all its other forensics incarnations, isn't exactly a spectator sport.

Policy debate is a duel between pairs of students who sling out words like fastballs: their speeches often sound more like an auctioneer on helium than Denzel Washington in "The Great Debaters." Lincoln-Douglas debate, which usually involves more philosophical than policy-based discussions, is esoteric, too. But instead of debating public-policy topics, students in "LD" analyze issues like human-rights violations.

Quincy Levin, a shaggy brown-haired 16-year-old who skipped a grade, wore flip flops on Wednesday with his debate uniform, a pressed black business suit. His look reveals what the teen does outside debate -- water polo -- but there's no question the kid is all smarts.

Levin recited the topic he'll debate at nationals: Resolved, an oppressive government is more desirable than no government at all.

"What I'm arguing is no government or an anarchy will not work. It will collapse, so an oppressive government is better," he said. "On the negative side, I'm going to say anarchy is possible. The two cases are just opposites and you have to be able to argue both sides."

Levin will be teamed up against other solo LD debaters from around the country next week.

His teammates, Jose Sicairos, 17, and Haley Hayashi, 17, will participate as a pair in the policy-debate event. Levitt will compete in congressional debate, an event that models real policy discussions happening in Washington, D.C.

But the four debaters, plus Rashid, who competes in speech, represent just a small slice of Fresno Unified students with access to forensics clubs.

Speech programs in Fresno Unified have all but dried up, said Edison coach Nicole Jennison, due to finances, lack of interest and trouble finding coaches.

"When I first started, the (national) qualifiers (tournament) had easily 35 schools," said Milla Volkov-Smith, Bullard's coach. "It's now 20."

The students are grateful they've qualified for nationals. But they're even more vocal about how thankful they are for their speech and debate programs.

"It didn't seem important, but after you start paying attention to what's going on, it actually opens your eyes," Levin said. "I've become interested in political science, economics and international affairs, and I owe that all to forensics."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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