Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My Debate Story

When I was a little girl, I loved to talk. I talked to anyone that would listen and even when they wouldn’t. I talked so much, that people started to tell me that I needed to learn to speak less. And so I did, to the point where by the time I was around 6 years old, I hardly wanted to talk anymore. I became shy, withdrawn, and lost my voice in the world. I didn’t have my fearless attitude anymore and I was afraid of what people might say if I were to speak up. So instead I kept everything inside and avoided conversations.

In school, there are multiple assignments that involve public speaking. Like most everyone else in my class, I was nervous but I got through them all. But it wasn’t until high school where I encountered an opportunity that would change my life. I was given a unique assignment to debate a classmate. I was terrified. There were tears. I was afraid to the point where I had almost dropped the class. I agonized over it every day knowing that it was getting closer. Debating was going to be different then giving a rehearsed speech. I was going to have to be ready for anything and debate a peer in front of my peers. I didn’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or have my own feelings hurt.

I finally turned to my dad for help. My dad is an accomplished attorney and the most fearless public speaker I know. You won’t ever catch him dwelling over what other people might think about him, and he is always confident he knows what he needs to say. At this time, my dad and I were not the best at communicating with each other. His bold and loud personality didn’t fit well with a quiet and easily emotional high school girl. We were complete opposites and I had no idea how asking for his advice was going to go, but he immediately took a huge interest in the project. He laid out the case and helped me brainstorm new approaches. He would drill me over and over on cross-examination questions even during dinner and between commercials on TV. There was a moment where I realized he wasn’t invested in the topic and he was actually investing time in me. We were able to bond over something as two completely different kinds of people, but we could still debate an argument with manners, integrity, and dignity. And every time I told him I was afraid, in his own way he would tell me that he believed in me. I think he knew that I could talk, but I just refused to do it for so long. So after a lot of emotional moments and trying to cry my way out of it, eventually I had to debate.

The debate assignment went so well, that after it was finally over a few of my classmates approached me. They wanted me to join the debate team. I didn’t even know my school even had a debate team. I also didn’t think I could go through that kind of preparation ever again. I thought about it for a long time and eventually decided to try one tournament. My partner and I won that first tournament. I realized that debating wasn’t about being loud, mean, or rude. In fact, I started making a ton of friends. We would talk to other teams between rounds and practice debating imaginary humorous topics on the bus. For the first time, I was encouraged to talk. My unique speaking style was being used as strategy. My coached worked with my strengths that I had and helped me develop my own unique character that I would become during a debate round. Not only was I finally able to speak again, but I felt compelled to speak. Now instead of rambling like I did when I was young, I could speak with purpose, structure, and persuasion. I knew how to use words and moments to my advantage to get my point across. And when the season was over, my partner and I were varsity semi-finalists (3rd place!) at state.

My experience as a debater laid a foundation for me for college. Not only were my papers stronger in vocabulary, grammar, and structure, but I had great relationship skills that allowed me to listen, cooperate, and resolve conflicts. I had problem solving skills and leadership abilities. I found myself constantly finding ways where my debate skills crossed over into my life and how I would cope with adversity.

I was lucky that I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be on a debate team at all. In North Dakota, there are over 160 schools and only around 20 of them offer debate programs. My team was small, only around 10 of us competed in a school of over 1000 students. I don’t know if I ever would have found my voice at all if it wasn’t for the series of events that lead to the slight chance of having this rare opportunity.

This is why I support debate programs. As a debate judge, I watch the students competing go through transformations similar to mine. I am inspired by their progress and I am motivated by their passion to be better. I have seen students start out as B/C average students and turn out to be national competitors. I have seen students with learning disabilities overcome their biggest fears. I have watched students go from the bottom one tournament to winning the next. But I am sad when I think of all of the students that miss out on this opportunity altogether simply because their school doesn’t offer a program. That easily could have been me, and if it had been, I don’t know if I would have ever made onto the amazing journey that I am on now. I am very thankful that this was how I found my voice in the world, but there is work to be done. I work hard to be sure that no one will feel afraid to raise their hand in class, or feel like they can’t share their ideas with a group. I promote debate programs so that people don’t feel trapped or secluded and have a place to safely communicate. I want to work hard to be sure that no one feels like their opinions are not valuable, or like they are not worthy of speaking, or that they are not capable of communicating their thoughts. It might be a small place to start, but I know it will work!

“The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives.” Tony Robbins

Meg Pulkrabek RD, LRD
Miss North Dakota International 2014