I was not nervous. Sure, I was standing in front of several hundred people in the eleventh and final team policy debate round of the 2012 NCFCA National Championships. Yes, I was competing for a national title. Yes, I was negative against a case I had never remotely studied or researched. Yes, my partner had just told me I needed to give an awesome 2NC to keep us afloat. But with all the pressure, I was not nervous. I was in my element: comfortable and prepared.
But I’m not really proud of it.
A few weeks earlier I had sat at a table: nervous and completely uncomfortable. Across from me sat a boy, probably in late middle school, and next to him sat a family member who was his legal guardian. I was in a run-down building on the not-so-safe side of downtown Indianapolis, volunteering for Reach for Youth Teen Court. This program allows juvenile offenders who have committed low-level offenses (usually low-class felonies and misdemeanors) to be tried in a court made up completely of their peers. The offender must have pled guilty and chosen the Teen Court option instead of traditional court, but after that choice is made, it is completely up to teenage volunteer attorneys and jury members to defend, prosecute, and sentence the offender. Teen Court is not mock trial or moot court; it is real-life offenders receiving real sentences in the Indiana criminal justice system.
On the particular evening I am describing, I was volunteering as a defense attorney (a first for me) for the offender being tried. Before court began, I was assigned to sit down with the offender and his guardian for forty minutes or so and talk to them about the best way to approach the case. To me, they were total strangers, and to be honest, they represented a lifestyle and “side of town” that I had had little contact with. But, I had volunteered, and I was stuck.
So I sat down. And nervously, the three of us began to talk. We talked about his offense, his character, and his grades. We talked about his friends, his family, and his fear of being tried. We prepped cross-examination question, discussed strategy for my closing statement, and listed ways that I could portray him in the best light possible. And when we were finished, we entered the tiny court room and sat down at the defense table, and court began.
It took several minutes for the reality to actually hit me. This was real. This person I was defending was not a card of evidence or a theoretical plan. The stakes at hand were not a 3-3 record or a 4-2 record. This was not a game. This boy was a real person, and the quality of my argumentation would have real-life impact on his sentence and his life.
Due to confidentiality laws, I cannot describe any details of the offender or what sentence he received.
I can, however, tell you what this case taught me about myself. I learned that there is one essential thing that five years of debate and a national championship cannot teach me: to be comfortable defending (or prosecuting) real people with messed up lives. I also learned that in the world of status quo, parametrics, and plan advocacy, I forgot to prepare myself to sit at a table and look a hurting juvenile offender in the eye. And ultimately, I learned that there is a point at which I—and all of us debate competitors—must transition from mock competitive debate to the real world of argumentation, where stakes are real.
The simple truth is this: competitive debate is a wonderful tool that teaches students great things, but it is not a substitute for reality. It helps us to prepare for real-life situations, but it is not a complete training package. In my case, debate made me able to stand in front of hundreds of people and speak without a hint of nerves, but it did not make be able to relate to and communicate with juvenile offenders outside of my affluent, well-educated, homeschooled, Christian circle. I’m working on that now, and I’m getting better. And I would love to see more debaters working on that too.
When I talk to students about why they should be a teen court attorney, I’m always disappointed by some of the responses I receive. Students tell me that they are uncomfortable or fearful. Oftentimes, these students are ones who have done debate for years. I know they are not afraid to talk; rather they are afraid of the ugly reality they have to face in the court process.
I’m not judging these students, because being an attorney was difficult for me at first, and I understand their fear. But as debaters, I think it’s essential that we realize that the skills we are learning are meaningless unless we can successfully transition into the real world.
When I was 11, my older sisters debated in NCFCA. I was stuck coming to club and tournaments and timing, timing, timing. Some of the other young timers and I formed an official timer “club,” in which we made movies, conducted our own debates, and raised a candy fund for other overworked timers. One of our core mottos was, “We care about more than harms and advantages: we care about people.”
At the time it was just a corny saying intended to make fun of our older siblings. But looking back, there was some real wisdom in it. If we do not find ways to use our skills to impact real people, we have totally lost perspective. Our broken world is not looking for a perfect 2NC delivered without a hint of nervousness. Our world needs leaders who use their skills to accomplish good on behalf of real people.
I encourage you to compete in debate, practicing and preparing with every ounce of effort in you. That is how tournaments are won. But in your zeal, never forget to leave some time to step outside of a debate round and practice reality.