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There is only one reference to me (as far as I know) in Wikipedia — the day I stood up in a floral Laura Ashley dress before a room full of rowdy college students and argued about Canadian football. Although (or, perhaps, because) it was a subject about which I—and my figure skating fan of a partner—knew almost nothing, we won the debate and ended up winning the national championships that year. I thought of that moment recently when I heard about Denzel Washington’s new movie, The Great Debaters, and read a piece by New York Times writer Lisa Belkin today on her own experiences in debating.
I joined the debating union at my university because public speaking was something that frankly scared me. I was a quiet kid in high school, the one who pulled out a hair net to work in a hospital kitchen after class and had worked to ditch both a lisp and a Scottish accent as a child. In my first try at debating in college, I stammered out a defense of Queen Elizabeth II (what’s not to love?)—and lost. Another time, I was so taken with the wit and logic of an Irish opponent that I essentially agreed with him and sat down.
But over the years, I have come to appreciate all that debating gave me. The most important, I think, was an ability to stand up and let myself be heard, regardless of the criticism I might face. Even in the face of bold stupidity, few of my colleagues were likely to match the withering imitation of me that a speaker did one year before a large crowd at Fordham University. Debating also made me realize that facts have little weight when not presented in a persuasive package.
I often wonder if my kids will find joy in debating, as I did. I hope so. It was the most valuable skill I carried away from college.
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