A homeschooler’s memoirs (Part 3)

The Weird World of Homeschool Debate

When I was in eighth grade, my mother thought a speech and debate club would be the solution to my entrenched shyness.

I remember feeling gripped by panic and nausea, sitting in the parking lot before the first meeting. I refused to even enter the building. But she made me go in, and I am thankful that she did. Against my will, speech and debate turned me into a confident young person and a passable public speaker. Team policy debate eventually became the consuming feature of my high school life.

There is a nationwide league of homeschool debate, and I think it still exists today. It has the word “Christian” in its name, so it’s for the wide swath of the homeschool population, which just so happens to be middle-class, conservative evangelicals. There were tournaments held around the country, culminating in Nationals, which generally met at whatever Christian college could be coerced to take us for a week. It was a convention of very high-level dorks. So many dorks. Of which I was definitely one.

One of my favorite realizations is that my first debate partner and I ran a very liberal case, despite the overwhelming right-wing leanings of our league. We wanted to return the Black Hills to the Sioux tribe, a proposition that was backed by Sen. Bill Bradley and, as you can imagine, was not popular at all with our extremely conservative judges. We lost a lot. We ourselves self-identified as young Republicans, and yet we never even considered how liberal our case was. It simply appealed to us because it was right and just.

Being in the debate world was the first time I got attention from older boys. I’m not sure why, because I had braces, a triangle of frizzy hair, and weighed all of 80 pounds. But they’d invite me to sit at their table between rounds and ask me what I had been researching and whether I’d read any good books lately. I just muttered and mumbled, sitting there in a perfect shade of crimson, wondering what interesting thing I could possibly say to them.

I went to Nationals once, at Liberty University, and it was a mostly miserable experience (except that I got to meet Lauren, which was a highlight). I was too nervous to eat and too appalled by all of the Liberty paraphernalia (e.g., Falwell’s clothes in glass cases) to enjoy myself. I was so sick of all of these homeschoolers that, on the third day, I moaned to my mother and grandparents, who had come to cheer me on, “I just want to get OUT of here and hang out with some heathen public-schoolers!” They laughed kindly at me, but they didn’t grasp the depth of my misery. Mom wanted to fix me up with this adorable, very short boy with brilliant blue eyes, but his younger brother and I became friends instead. My debate partner and I only won half of our rounds, and I was just happy to come home.

I “coached” younger debaters for a few years, which made me feel proud and maternal, even if the kids didn’t really learn anything. I was very organized, though. I always had very neatly printed handouts. But the kids were all pretty miserable public speakers.

During my last year, my sister and I teamed up. My mother encouraged me to partner with her, for which I had to decline the offer of the cutest homeschooled boy in the entire southeast (I think literally), which made me bitter for a while, but Kelsey and I became a rather excellent team. We always wore heels (which made us approach 6 feet) and pantsuits. We won Regionals, against a male team. People told me later that the only reason we won was because the five-judge panel had three men on it, who had all voted for us. Thanks for your vote of confidence in our reasoning abilities! Clearly, we only won because we had boobs.

I quit debate after that tournament, with a bad taste in my mouth, and even though I missed the nerdy thrill of a perfectly executed cross-examination, I was happy to be done. I was ready to enter the “real world,” e.g., a public university, and leave it all behind.



Women’s words

Some things I want to speak into the void in an incoherent fashion:

I’ve been thinking about Mary Beard’s essay in the London Review of Books, “The Public Voice of Women.” (Yeah, it’s long, but she has pictures! In footnotes!)

Telemachus telling his mom to shut up.

Beard argues that women have been silent for 2,700 years — and it’s a silence that continues today. Even with this so-called rise of women (and purported “decline of men”) and the soaring numbers of women getting graduate degrees, women do not hold much sway at all in the public forum.

Even now, gossip and prattle seems to be the primary purview of feminine discourse. Women have always been chastised for being gossips. I can’t remember ever hearing a man called a “gossip,” or have been accused of doing it. (Men slander people; women, those catty little creatures, just gossip about them?) Thoughts on this: Women are relegated to gossip because they are prevented from other forms of speech, e.g., the “serious,” manly ones. Obviously, a lot of the historical barriers have been lifted — women can now too go sit in a bar and talk about the politics of fracking and Kafka — but for centuries, all serious topics have been reserved for men. (See Women, Know Your Limits!)

I come into this topic from an unusual personal vantage point. I hail from a community with a long heritage of hatred of women (conservative evangelicals + white people + homeschoolers). Most of the church communities from my childhood would blanch at the thought of letting a woman speak from the pulpit. Ordaining a woman was completely out of the question. (Yet another reason I’m proud to be Episcopalian now.) What could a man possibly learn from a woman?

And YET, I joined an active policy debate league when I was in high school. Yep, we homeschoolers had a national policy debate league. (It was super-weird and the most nerdy, but I loved it.) As a young woman, being a debater in a patriarchal, conservative community was interesting. Once I got over my paralyzing shyness, I’ll admit that I became a pretty good public speaker. Weirdly enough, I thrived behind a podium. It was one of the few places where I could speak with confidence in front of men — and they took me seriously.

But I learned, as Mary Beard points out, that a woman who is a strong public speaker is regarded as a freak of androgyny, far more masculine than feminine. So I never wore dresses or skirts, like the other girls did. I always wore pantsuits. I stood up with impeccable posture. I wore heels so that I’d tower over my male debate partner, and most of the other boys that I contended with. I marched around and gave firm, knuckle-cracking handshakes.

Beard points out that Margaret Thatcher took voice training lessons to specifically lower her voice.

Winona Ryder in “Little Women.” Jo March 4 Life!

During my final year, I partnered with my sister Kelsey, who was also a strong public speaker and very tall and also wore pantsuits. We won Regionals, against a team of two boys. I remember other people saying that the only reason we won was because we were pretty, and because the judges’ panel had three men on it. I remember the anger and hurt that welled up in me when people said that to me, but even worse, I remember the internal dread: What if it’s true? What if we didn’t win on our own merit, but simply because these old dudes were creepy?

(*Winona Ryder picture explanation: Remember that scene in “Little Women” when Jo is staying at the boarding house and sitting around with the dudes, talking about votes for women? As a kid, I always loved that scene, because she’s so eloquent and she stands up to those smoking bros. And these lines:

DUDE: You should have been a lawyer, Miss March.
JO MARCH: I should have been a great many things, Mr. Mayer.)

The sad part about Beard’s essay is that she can’t come up with any practical remedies to this age-old tradition of silencing and demeaning women.

Progress is slow. Very slow. So, women: Keep speaking!

Talking in the old way

This weekend, we were charmed to keep the company of Ann-Marie and Shaun. They are very wonderful, fun, and engaging and we are always thrilled to have them as house guests. After they got in on Saturday night, we walked to the downtown mall with Pyrrha and had dinner at The Whiskey Jar.


Sunday night, we started a rousing discussion on the definition of marriage. It was energetic and compelling and thought-provoking and it even made me miss college a little. Remember college? Remember sitting around and having conversations like that all night long? We don’t do that much anymore. And maybe it’s good that we don’t, it’s good that we’ve moved on from finding our opinions so valuable, but at the same time, I do sincerely miss that heated exchange of ideas. It’s something I’ve always loved.

Does this blog feel a bit stale to you? I’ve been getting steadily worse at this hobby.

We have already had such a busy summer, but it has been a very happy one.