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Theron Harrison is frenetic today. Pacing back and forth in mismatched stocking feet — one black sock, one white — he glides on tiptoe across the wood floor in the neat living room of his family’s house in northeast Park Hill, thumping a mini-football against the wall as he dictates notes to his sister, Teague. He’s wearing a baggy T-shirt that features two big, shiny gold handguns and the words “Just Me and My Bitches” across the chest.
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“We gotta step it up,” says the seventeen-year-old matter-of-factly. “I want to, at least, be in New York debating on day two. If you’re debating on day two, that means you’re getting a trophy. And if you’re getting a trophy in New York, then you might be getting a scholarship, you know what I’m saying?”
Teague, who is sixteen, listens as she types on her Toshiba laptop, which is balanced on the orange crate the two use to lug around their thick folders of dense debate paperwork. A pair of headphones hangs around her neck, softly playing a Korean pop song. It’s Sunday afternoon, and she and her brother are making a list of goals.
Know all of our affirmatives.
Have a defined and clear-cut negative strategy.
Win all of our rounds.
Win the tournament.
The Harrisons are the odds-on favorites to win the Denver Urban Debate League City Championship this weekend. If they do, they’ll get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Urban Debate National Championship in New York City next month. Teague and Theron have been hot all year, winning every tournament except for the last one in February, which they had to sit out. Theron, a smart student, was ineligible to compete because of a failing grade in first-period chemistry — a result of his inability to show up to class on time.
Now, with the city championship just three weeks away, he’s picking up the rapid-fire pace of preparation that has hurtled him and his sister to the top of the league.
This year’s debate topic, or resolution, is intense, and debaters must argue both sides: whether the U.S. should substantially reduce its military presence in one of the following six countries — South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq or Turkey.
As Theron talks strategy with Teague, it’s almost possible to see his thoughts tripping over one another in order to make it to his mouth.
“Everything we do at this tournament, we’re going to do at nationals,” he says, ping-ponging between the front door and the entrance to the kitchen. He tosses the football and catches it. He opens the fridge, closes it and turns around. “This is practice for how things are going to go down in New York.”
For Manual High School in Five Points, the 2010-2011 debate season began at 4 p.m. on August 25, the fifth day of the new school year, at an L-shaped table in the school’s stuffy second-floor library. Eighteen teenagers, many still wearing the polo shirts with a blue “M” embroidered on the breast that make up the school’s uniform, sat at the table drinking lemon-lime soda out of Styrofoam cups and sucking orange cheese powder from cheddar-flavored chips off their fingertips.
“We are stuck right now,” said debate team coach Charlie Smith, a ninth-grade geography teacher at Manual, home of the Thunderbolts. “We need a bigger team.”
Manual has been part of the Denver Urban Debate League since it started three years ago. The idea behind it is to bring an intensely intellectual activity usually reserved for affluent, white suburban high schools to inner-city schools like Manual, where 93 percent of the 349 students are black or Latino, 90 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch (an indicator of poverty) and where, statistically, the chances they’ll graduate and go to college prepared for academic rigor are slimmer.
The league is part of a national movement that has roots in Atlanta, home to college-debate powerhouse Emory University. In 1985, Emory helped found the Atlanta Urban Debate League in partnership with the city’s public schools. Others cities followed suit, and in 1997, philanthropist George Soros donated seed money for more leagues.
That funding dried up in 2002, and the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, a nonprofit based in Chicago, was formed to continue the work. By then, there were fourteen urban debate leagues in cities such as Baltimore, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Now there are nineteen, including Denver’s.
“I’m from a pretty lower-middle-class family,” says Corrada, now a law professor at the University of Denver. “The only way for me to go straight to college and handle that debt was to get some sort of scholarship. Debate allowed me to do that.”
Several top debate colleges, such as Emory, the University of Kansas and Northwestern University in Illinois, offer substantial debate-related scholarships, and most universities consider debate a plus when doling out generic financial aid.
“This is about getting kids into college,” says Munn, former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.