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

The judge votes for Teague and Theron. "I am so impressed," she tells them. "You had no summer rust." It's their first win of the season; they lost their first round to a formidable team, Bethany and Amber, from MLK.

After that, Teague and Theron make it their goal to never lose to that pair again — and they don't. In fact, they don't lose much at all. At the second tournament, held at Thomas Jefferson High School in November, they win all of their rounds and take first place in the finals. At the third tournament, held at West in December, they win four rounds and lose one (to another team from MLK) but go on to win in the finals. At the following tournament, at MLK in January, they're undefeated. Again they take home first-place trophies, which they display in a tall wood-and-glass case in their living room.

Their success is due in part to the affirmative case they debut at the second tournament. The case is far more sophisticated than anything the other students are arguing. It starts by asking the judge to throw out their own notions of good and bad and instead evaluate the round based on deontology, a philosophical theory that says actions should be judged based on the wrongness and rightness of the actions themselves and not on the consequences of those actions. Or, as Teague once explained it in a round, "Killing somebody who is disliked by the public at large is still wrong because it's killing somebody, which is a violation of human rights."

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.

It's a theory usually relegated to master's theses — and one that most teenagers have never heard of, which works to Teague and Theron's advantage. "What does deontology mean?" is the most common cross-ex question their opponents ask them, often adding, "In your own words!" in an attempt to trip them up. It never works.

But even if Teague and Theron's opponents understand the concept — and can pronounce it; many call it "de-on-whatever" — they often have no idea how to attack it. Should they offer their own philosophical theory? Or try to convince the judge that deontology is bogus? Many simply end up arguing that invoking deontology is unfair. "It's like you're ready to play a football game and then they say, 'No, it's baseball,'" a debater named Marilyn once told a judge.

Theron learned about deontology at debate camp. After the first tournament, he and Teague began applying it to their Okinawa argument. They didn't predict that the case would do so well, but it has — even in the more competitive statewide league in which most metro-area high schools, such as Cherry Creek High, compete. At a tournament there in December, which was optional for DUDL students, Teague and Theron won all but one of their rounds.

"I was just playing around on the computer one night and I put it together," Theron says with a shrug. "People think I'm a genius, but all I did was mix and match some cards."

That's selling himself short, DUDL judges say. "It's a very advanced type of debate theory," says Meng. "They're critiquing the way we think about things."

"Lots of people run these generic arguments that claim some remote risk of nuclear devastation, and so these nuclear-war scenarios become kind of trite," says Paul Loupe, the debate coach at DSST. "The deontology argument is prepared for our resentment for it and turns it on its ear."

The fact that Theron figured that out speaks volumes, they say. "What makes him a standout is he's always looking ahead in terms of his development as a debater," says Margesson, the Regis coach. "He learns one thing and then he's immediately asking about the next thing."

Teague, though not as excitable, is every bit as intelligent. Margesson describes her as a "nice, calming force." "She's a great partner for him," he says. "I think two Therons on one team would be a trainwreck."

But while Theron's unbridled fervor can sometimes work against him, Margesson says, it does set him apart. "A lot of these kids are just happy to get through a standard eight-minute speech and then sit down and hope to God that the other team screws up. And I think that doesn't interest him. He wants to kill everyone in the room, debate-wise."

******

On a Friday afternoon in mid-February, the air inside the Montbello High School library is hot as nearly one hundred students wait for the fifth tournament of the season to begin. Though the league encourages debaters to dress business-casual, most kids are wearing the same clothes they wore to school: tight jeans and low-cut tops for the girls, baggy jeans and flashy sneakers for the boys. As they watch for the first-round postings to go up, some listen to iPods while others compare raunchy ringtones. Most munch on snacks provided by the league — bottles of soda, granola bars, fruit snacks, bananas — and huddle in groups, chatting loudly and giggling.

Teague and Theron aren't among them. The league's all-stars won't have a chance to win this time. Theron has an F in chemistry, making him ineligible to compete in this, the last tournament before the city championship. Per school policy, his first-period chemistry teacher dropped his grade from a C to an F because he was tardy eighteen times in the trimester. "I'm not a morning person," Theron explains.

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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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