West Caldwell's students ready for first-ever debate competition

Sep. 28, 2013 @ 12:00 PM

As Autumn Haas walked to the front of a West Caldwell High classroom on Thursday, she kept her head down and shuffled sheets of paper in her hands, one over the other.

“I’m so nervous,” she told the small group of her classmates perched on desks, watching her. “I don’t like talking in front of people.”

From the corner, Autumn’s teacher – speech and debate coach Brian Costin – chimed in.

“That’s why you’re in this class,” he told her. “To learn to like it.”

Autumn is a student in Costin’s speech and debate course, which launched last year and is sharing a time slot this year with a new honors class for returning students. On Oct. 12, students in the honors class will travel to North Mecklenburg High for their first debate tournament – making them the first competitive high school debate team at West and, at least for now, the only one in the county.

Competitive debate isn’t necessarily on the radar for most high schoolers or their parents, but it’s a bigger deal than many realize. The ranks of high school debate alumni are peppered with celebrities (Bruce Springsteen, James Dean, William H. Macy), personalities (Oprah Winfrey, Roger Ebert) and dignitaries (Antonin Scalia, Nelson Mandela). A survey published the National Forensics League, the national organizing body for middle- and high-school debate, claims 64 percent of U.S. Congress members competed in speech or debate in high school.

Costin, who was a debate coach in three other counties before coming to Caldwell, said he has seen debate rearrange kids’ priorities.

“This is something that changes lives,” he said. “I have seen students who were one foot in bad places and one foot on a banana peel, and now they’re college students.”

Junior Brooke Caldwell, who is in the competitive honors class, said debate changes everything. Books in English class, stories on television news – everything looks different now that it’s filled with the context that builds from careful research.  

Brooke’s friends don’t all understand why she’s drawn to debate. They tell her, “You just stand in there and argue” – and she tells them that’s not how it is.

“You don’t really argue,” she said. “You have an opinion.”

In Costin’s class on Thursday, the honors students were readying for competition – preparing to debate mock legislation on everything from stabilization in Egypt to the elimination of corn-based ethanol. Some students also made presentations on current events, stirring the class into conversation on terrorism in Nairobi and banned books in Randolph County.

When they started the class, many of these kids had only the faintest opinions on current events, Costin said. Now they don’t just present – they debate, they gesticulate, they get mad.

“I have seen students that had very little interest in the world outside of high school get angry about issues that, when they first started, they didn’t know anything about,” he said.  

When Tiffany Oliver started her first year of speech and debate, she was asked to debate on women’s rights – and she told Costin she didn’t much care.

On Thursday, she spoke about Stacey Rambold, a former Montana high school teacher who admitted to raping one of his students – a 14-year-old girl who later killed herself – and was just released from a one-month sentence. When Oliver reached the portion of her speech that touched on the judge’s comments about Rambold’s victim – he had said the girl “seemed older than her chronological age” and was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold – her voice peaked and her hands flew.

Oliver said her opinions have solidified on women’s rights, gun control and a slew of other issues since she started speech and debate.  

“It really intrigues me how many world events there are to debate about,” Oliver said. “Just a little bit of knowledge can completely change your view.”