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

This afternoon, the team is starting by doing the aforementioned drills, reading through their evidence out loud for ten minutes and then doing it again, backward.

Smith is busy with paperwork, so Theron is running the stopwatch, prodding his teammates to stay on task. He doesn't shout or talk down to them; instead, he levels with them. When a few debaters begin to mumble as their ten minutes wind down, he looks up from his own reading and says, almost incredulously, "I didn't say stop."

Already the team has dwindled from that first meeting in August. In order to compete, debaters must maintain C's or better in all of their classes. It's proving to be a significant hurdle for some. At the last tournament, only six debaters were eligible to compete. Having fewer debaters is hurting Manual's ability to win team awards at tournaments. They keep losing to schools with bigger teams, like their chief rivals, Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. Theron isn't happy about it.

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.



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

"We should've won," he tells his teammates. "This team has a lot of potential, and there's a lot of love in this room. So let's be at practice and let's take it serious." For the moment, no one is goofing off. Everyone is listening. "It can't just be a couple of us. It takes a team. Can we get a 'T-Bolts' or something?"

Smith raises his eyebrows, impressed, then leads the team in their signature, booming cheer. "T! BOLTS!"


One of the most amazing things about urban debate, supporters say, is how far students progress in the course of the six-month tournament season, which spans from October to March. It's the stuff of Stand and Deliver. It's proof that if you set expectations high, students will exceed them. It's cheesy, and while some students resent that their accomplishments are seen as unexpected — "Even though we're urban and we may not have fifty laptops and all the money in the bank, we're just as smart as other people," says Manual senior debater Rashauna Tunson — it's impossible to deny that the students' growth from fall to spring is awe-inspiring.

The first tournament of the year takes place on a Saturday in October at Manual. Most students are nervous. One vomits. The rest mumble through their speeches, stopping and starting and stuttering. They mispronounce the names of countries and mangle difficult words. Kim Jong Il becomes "Kim Jong Two." Seoul comes out as "Sow-ool." It's obvious that many of them don't understand the complicated politics behind the arguments they're trying so hard to seem confident in making.

Amid the uncertainty, Teague and Theron stand out.

Now juniors, it's the first time they've debated together since they were freshmen. For their affirmative, they choose an edgy case: that the U.S. should withdraw all troops from its base in Okinawa, Japan, because soldiers are raping Okinawan women.

Their second round of the day takes place in an English classroom. The judge, an attorney named Breena Meng, folds herself into a student desk near the back. Teague, Theron and their opponents, two girls from the Denver School of Science and Technology, sit up front, facing her. Teague speaks first. Standing behind the upturned crate that serves as a podium, she lays out the case in a loud voice brimming with self-assuredness, a voice the outwardly quiet teenager doesn't use much outside of debate.

"The U.S. should respect the wishes of Okinawans!" she booms, citing a report that 52 percent want the troops gone. The other team shoots back with an argument that "the opposition to the base is not that intense" and that removing an entire military base because of rape would be "extreme."

In the first cross-examination, Theron attacks. "What are more important issues than rape?" he demands. "Name three."

When the girls counter that pulling troops out of Japan could set off a nuclear war with North Korea, Theron makes clear that he's not having it. "So you can rape someone, but as long as you're protecting them, that's all right?" he asks. His tone is dubious and his eyes are on the judge.

When he's not speaking, he's moving. Throughout the round, Theron frantically scribbles notes, shuffles his and Teague's cards and whispers strategy in his sister's ear. Sometimes when she's speaking, he jumps out of his seat like someone's lit it on fire. He wants to say something to her, to direct her to make a certain argument or stay away from another, but doing so is forbidden. Even so, Theron stretches that rule as far as he can, passing her his scribbled notes, shaking his head to signal yes or no, and motioning for her to speak faster when he feels she's running out of time.

Theron speaks last. That's his and his sister's strategy: Teague, the more even-keeled of the two, meticulously sets up their plan, explaining the nuts and bolts to the judge. Theron, the passionate leader, then steps in and clinches it with technical analysis and emotional reasoning.

"We outline a specific problem — they don't!" he tells the judge. His voice is strong, and in a situation where time is everything, his words spill out like a waterfall. Theron continues: Their threat of nuclear war isn't backed by any evidence, he says, while our claim of rape is. There was one instance, he adds, where six soldiers gang-raped an Okinawan woman but were never convicted of it. "There's still rape happening," he says, "so we have to withdraw!"

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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.


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.


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.