Liberty Hill High School debaters find their voice
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The first time Allison Itz competed in a high school debate tournament was a disaster, she says. To start, she was not dressed in the proper professional clothes, but she also at one point mixed up her arguments and began advocating her opponent’s side.
It wasn’t a surprise that she did not win. But she did learn.
Two years later, Itz, now a junior at Liberty Hill High School, has since climbed her way through local debate brackets. She went to State competition last year in two events — Congressional Debate and Persuasive Speaking.
It is the kind of success story heard often among the state’s most veteran debaters, and one whose outline a new generation of novice debaters in Liberty Hill now hope to follow.
“Since 6th grade, people have always been telling me I should be a lawyer,” says first time debater and high school junior Emily Layton. “I argue everything.”
Freshman Jaden Salazar discovered his voice of confidence more recently. The normally quiet young man lights up when asked about his short time on Liberty Hill’s Speech & Debate team.
“It’s stressful during the round,” he says, “but it’s always a good feeling afterwards — whether you won or lost.”
Daylen Hawkins, a senior, joined this year after leaving afterschool football, which had always clashed with the debate team’s schedule for practices and tournaments. He has found that many of the lessons from football are still applicable in debate.
When facing off against a more experienced opponent, for instance, “there’s no sense in getting intimidated,” he says. “You just have to do you.”
His debate partner, senior Mason Fiebrich, is not exactly new to the team. For the last three years, he has competed on the extemporaneous speaking side. That much already helped him overcome a stuttering problem he had growing up. Learning how to compete in Policy Debate, he hopes, will teach him even more.
These four students attended their first debate tournament in October.
On the Saturday of Homecoming Week, they arrived at LHHS at 8 a.m. From there, their coach, speech teacher Tammy Ballard, drove them the 20 minutes to Burnet High School, where the first rounds of a “teaching tournament” were set to begin at 9 a.m.
Unlike the other tournaments the students will attend later in the year, the Burnet tournament was not one meant to seed out winners. Instead, its all-novice participants spent most of their time in educational sessions, learning the technical sides of debate as a sport. Actual debate rounds were sparing.
As one tournament organizer put it, this was not a weekend to win. It was to learn. Winning would come later.
The Liberty Hill students were split between the types of debate they each hope to learn.
Layton, who aspires to compete in Congressional Debate like her friend Itz, had previously observed sessions of the event before, but she had never participated. At Burnet, she stood to deliver three speeches on the floor of the “House,” which was really a collection of students from surrounding high schools.
She began one speech with a familiar refrain: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The bedrock for these basic principles would be furthered, she argued to the chamber, if the law were changed such that organ donation was something assumed by default unless requested otherwise, as opposed to the reverse which is currently in place.
Across the high school in a different room, Salazar was meanwhile learning more about the fundamentals of Lincoln-Douglas Debate, a kind of one-on-one event that centers on the philosophic questions in current issues.
The instructor’s first lesson, however, was on note-taking. As a highly structured debate with multiple speeches from both sides, knowing how to keep track of the arguments is essential.
From there, the students went on to familiarize themselves with their cases, the set of arguments and supporting evidence that they will deploy in-round to argue their side. Normally competitors write their own cases, but for the sake of education and efficiency at this tournament, the instructor explained, this time-consuming process would be discouraged in favor of the novices all using the same pre-written cases given to them.
Setting down a timer, he tells the students to read the cases aloud to themselves. The room erupts into noise as the dozens of young men and women practice the arguments given to them.
The topic is one the students competing in the event will become exhaustively familiar with by the end of the semester, “The United States federal government has a moral obligation to provide universal health care for its citizens.”
The pre-written case for the “negative,” as the side opposing the resolution is called, argues that the kind of government overreach required in such a system would inevitably “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
The “affirmative” meanwhile argues that equal access to healthcare is necessary to secure before any other freedom.
Salazar, though he argued with these cases for the rest of the day, said he looks forward to writing his own cases.
“Using someone else’s arguments can be hard,” he says.
The Liberty Hill students are no strangers to hard issues.
At their Monday afterschool practices, the team’s roughly dozen or so students gather to discuss the headlines of the week. For their first meet in October, for instance, this included football players taking a knee, the new prevalence of unisex bathrooms, and whether the federal government can—and whether it should— “bring back” the American coal industry.
Ballard only has to give a light amount of direction. The students are for the most part self-motivated.
“These aren’t the kind of discussions you hear normally in high school,” Layton says about their back-and-forths. “We don’t assume we’re right until we know all the facts.”
It is why, she says, she likes arguing both sides of an issue.
Fiebrich said doing such was the only way to “truly” have an opinion on a difficult question.
But competitive debate as a sport, however, ventures far beyond simple argument.
“It’s like a game, just like football,” Hawkins said.
He and Fiebrich’s educational session at the Burnet tournament covered some of the basics for Cross-Examination Debate, also called “Policy Debate.” The complexity of arguments that arise over the typical round’s hour and a half, combined with the difficulty for judges to evaluate them fairly, had led to the emergence of a technical language.
The resulting jargon breaks down different types of arguments into their constitutive logical parts, allowing debaters and judges to better identify how one argument interacts with another.
A “disad,” Hawkins and Fiebrich learned, is the shortened term for an argument that attempts to demonstrate an unseen harm in an opponent’s proposal. Many common “disads” are known by given names, such as the “Federalism Disad,” which argues that a given plan will upset the balance of powers between the federal government and states. This, the argument commonly continues, will begin a series of events escalating the chance of global war.
Among the parts of a disad, the instructor explained, a “link” is the part of the disad that shows why the opponent’s case will trigger the scenario. The “uniqueness” is what proves that the alleged harms will only come about with the opponent’s case, which would otherwise never happen.
Fiebrich asks the instructor whether the “link” or “uniqueness” is more important to attack when attempting to defend a case against a disad. The instructor says that the best thing to do is to “turn” the disad on the opponent, by establishing their own case’s “link” to the scenario.
A cursory knowledge of this technical aspect, though too immense to learn in one afternoon, soon proved helpful for Hawkins and Fiebrich.
Later that day, the two were engaged in a round against opponents from a neighboring school. Toward the end of the round, one of the opponents introduced arguments against the Liberty Hill pair’s case that had not been previously established.
In his next speech, one of the last of the round, Hawkins argued calmly why any “new arguments” introduced this late should not be evaluated by the judge. His point relied on some of the technical terms the pair were taught just hours previously, and which allowed him to articulate exactly what would be at stake by allowing their opponents to win with such last-minute arguments.
Hawkins and Fiebrich won the round.
“The judge was just dumbfounded by how respectful my partner was,” Fiebrich said.
They were not the only ones from Liberty Hill to find success.
Layton, who argues everything, and one day plans to become a lawyer, won 1st place in Congressional Debate.