Say What? Meet the walking, talking argument for Denver's Urban Debate League

Teague, who was also a freshman that year, stuck with it, but she wasn't enthusiastic. "The first year, it wasn't really organized and we didn't really know what we were doing," she says. But Teague was interested enough to attend a prestigious debate camp that summer at the University of Wyoming. The three-week camp draws top high-school debaters — many of them on track to attend Harvard and Princeton — from all over the country. Cordellia taught summer school to pay the tuition.

Teague rejoined the team at Manual the fall of her sophomore year but didn't enjoy it, partly because her debate partner was lackluster. After the first semester, she quit to focus more on her schoolwork and her position as editor of the school magazine.

Right after Teague quit, Theron rejoined. He didn't have a partner, so he debated solo, which in debate lingo is called "going maverick." But he did so poorly at his first tournament back that he quit again. His mom pushed him to rejoin, and he ended up partnering with Kahdijah James, an honor roll student with so much poise, it's hard to believe she's just sixteen. As partners, though, Theron says, "we were terrible." Kahdijah didn't cope well with Theron's domineering style; he once made her cry at a tournament.

Opponents pick their words carefully against the Manual High School debate team.
Anthony Camera
Opponents pick their words carefully against the Manual High School debate team.
Manual debate team coach Charlie Smith knows what he likes when he hears it.
Anthony Camera
Manual debate team coach Charlie Smith knows what he likes when he hears it.

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Watch a video of the Manual High School students at the city debate championships on March 19, 2011. Watch the video on Latest Word.

At the city championship last year, Theron and Kahdijah won three rounds and lost three — far short of earning a bid to the national championships. Even so, Theron caught the attention of league volunteers, who could see his talent. "Theron is one of the reasons I got hooked on this league right at the very start," says Alan Zimmerman, an IT manager at Qwest who debated in college and now volunteers as a judge at tournaments. "It was obvious that he was brilliant, obvious that he was trying really hard and enjoying this.

"Debate might have been the only thing keeping him in school," he adds.

At the awards banquet after the city championship last year, Theron learned he was one of two Denver students who won a scholarship to go the same debate camp his sister attended the year before. To win it, he'd written an essay explaining that this year, he wanted to be a leader on Manual's debate team.

That scholarship changed things. "I couldn't quit after that," Theron says.

Manual's coach, Smith, also won a scholarship, as did another Manual debater, Ronnie Lovato. "I knew right away that Theron and Ronnie would be the only minorities at debate camp," Smith says. "Right before we left, I told them, 'I don't know what it's going to be like for you, but you can take and use the fact that you're different as an asset or as something that hinders you. And I want you to play it as an asset.'"

The first day, Theron walked into the room wearing a Lakers jersey, sunglasses and a baseball cap, Smith recalls. He sat in the center of the front row, his back to rows of wealthy students with Mac laptops. Theron only had pen and paper. "He just blew up at debate camp," Smith says. The other students "challenged his intellect. I don't think his intellect was often challenged at Manual — not the way it was there."

"I was intimidated," Theron admits. His partner at camp, he says, "knew infinitely more than me. He worked with me a lot." And Theron soaked it all in. The kid who often missed the first bell at school made it to his lab sessions by 8 a.m. every morning and was at the hour-long optional sessions that started at 11:30 every night. The other debaters called him "Captain."

"He became a leader," Smith says. 

******

Just past 5 p.m. on a fall Monday, the team is practicing, and Theron is in charge.

"Ten seconds, guys!" he calls out above the cacophony of voices bouncing around the room, which is empty save for the dozen debaters speed-reading through their cards. The team has been practicing every Monday and Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the library, which doesn't have a librarian this year.

The practices have the feel of a family gathering — that is, a family that regularly gathers to discuss nuclear proliferation and the merits of military spending. Cordellia is always there, the only parent with debate experience, guiding them in the finer points of argumentation. The other debaters call her "Mom" as often as they call her "Ms. Harrison." Pat Coan, a retired federal judge and Scarlett's mentor through Colorado Youth at Risk, also volunteers, bringing the kids healthy after-school snacks — one day, it was individual servings of grapes in Ziploc bags, another it was homemade lemon squares — and working one-on-one with students who need extra help.

Smith is the conductor, overseeing it all. He doesn't run practice like a drill sergeant, but he's no pushover, either. When the kids get too giddy, too jokey, too hyper, he tells them to knock it off. Last year, Jessica nicknamed him "Demon Fluff." "He's fluffy and he's a demon," she explains. Smith shrugs and smiles; it could be worse.

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3 comments
Gsluvs4me
Gsluvs4me

Manual began a journey to transformation under Rob Stein and the school is still in the process of proving that our public schools are worth saving not shutting. Go T-Boltz! I wish that Rob Stein had been able to complete this Journey with Manual High School. Thank You for coming back for 3 years to your old High School we wish you well.

chc
chc

Okay, another comment besides the geography lesson---it is a shame that so many people in northeast Denver are choicing out instead of fighting to make the schools in our neighborhood more rigorous. what happened to Theron when he experienced a whole grop of kids smarter than he was--he made himself get smarter. Many families have walked away from schools just because there are minorities or lower economic classes in them. Neighborhood public schools NEED students at ALL academic and socio-economic levels for most to gain.

Another great thing about Manual---SMALL class sizes . . . with lots of adult volunteers from the neighborhood to provide tutoring, mentoring and one-on-one classroom attention. And the teachers are an amazing team of educators!

Too many people still consider Manual what it was like when it was shut down. It has become (again) a safe, productive place for students to flourish in high school.

chc
chc

Manual High School is NOT in Five Points. It is in the (much tamer-sounding) Whittier neighborhood. I know Five Points sound lots tougher, more urban, but it is NOT correct!

For future reference, Whittier's boundaries are: 23rd Ave. on the south, Martin Luther King Blvd. on the north, York St. on the east and Downing St. on the west.

 
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