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.