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

Teague won't be debating, either. She's eligible, but she decides not to participate without her brother, which would have meant switching partners and learning a new case. She isn't pleased about it; in fact, she says she's "pissed."

The rest of the team is let down too, but they don't dwell on it. Similar to track or swimming, debate is an individual sport tucked inside a team sport. "I feel happy and sad," says Manual debater Jessica. Sad because they're not here, she explains, but happy because Teague and Theron's absence increases her chance of winning.

At around 3:30, a DUDL official tacks up a piece of paper listing the first round of match-ups, and the students rush toward it. They scan it for their names and hurry back to where they've stashed their plastic bins full of evidence. Game faces on, they scatter to the classrooms where they'll compete in the first of five rounds over two days.

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.

The first round goes well for Manual. Eight debaters are eligible this time around, and three of Manual's four two-person teams win their rounds.

Rashauna, who doesn't speak much in class but is sassy and confident when she debates, has moved up to the varsity division, where she's partnered with Jessica. They're debuting a new case today: that the U.S. should withdraw from South Korea because the military's presence has been linked with higher rates of prostitution.

Kendale and Kahdijah are arguing that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq because our soldiers are spurring more terrorist violence, not less. Kendale is passionate and his voice is rhythmic. "If we withdraw, we'll save more lives!" he shouts in one round. "Withdrawal stops terrorism, because the terrorists are attacking us!"

Meanwhile, Scarlett is partnered with sixteen-year-old Terrance Campbell, a new junior who caught on so fast that he moved up to varsity after only one tournament. They're also arguing for withdrawal from Iraq, but by a specific date: December 2011. Having a timeline is key, Scarlett says. Otherwise, the promise to remove troops is empty. "It's like telling your landlord you're going to move out, but you keep painting the walls and moving in new furniture," she says.

None of the other schools seem to notice that Teague and Theron aren't there. Debate isn't a spectator sport, and amid the hubbub, their absence isn't obvious. But word has spread among the coaches and judges, and when Theron shows up at 5:45, his welcome is short of warm.

"Disappointing," says one coach, shaking her head as she passes Theron in the library. Ben Durham, an energetic young judge who likes to give advice, pulls him aside in the hallway. "What are you doing, man?" Ben asks, as Theron leans against a row of lockers, looking sheepish.

When Theron comes back into the library, Jon Denzler, a sophomore debater at Regis who also volunteers as a judge, waves him over.

"Don't cuss me out!" Theron pleads. "Everybody has."

Denzler doesn't. After chatting with Theron, he says, "I think he just got bored. They were winning too much and not being challenged. It was almost like he needed a break."

It's true. There were things Theron could have done to make up for his tardies in chemistry. But he chose not to, a decision that frustrated his coach, Smith, who had his own hallway chat with Theron. "Debate teaches you to own it," Smith says. "I just want to empower my students to see opportunities and take them."

But Theron confesses he's struggling with the weight of those opportunities. "I don't even know if I want to go to college," he tells Denis Sapranov, another young judge who has come looking for Theron in order to playfully smack him upside the head.

Several colleges have expressed interest in Theron, and he says he's considering applying to DU. He'd love to live in California, so Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, are also on his list. Teague, meanwhile, would like to go to Regis.

Sapranov is sympathetic. He himself dropped out of college and says he doesn't want Theron to make the same mistake. "I understand there's a lot of pressure on you because of what you've accomplished," he says. "And I think it's okay to take a break."

He pauses. "So," he adds, "what's the plan?"

Theron thinks a minute. "I hope that this weekend, I hear something that motivates me to have my grades where they need to be."

Almost on cue, Ashley Stadille, a Regis student who serves as the DUDL's events coordinator and is at every tournament, wanders into the library. She's also come to have a heart-to-heart with Theron, and she ends up making him an offer: If he brings his GPA up to at least a 3.2, she'll bake him a cake. And if he beats her ACT score, a 31, she'll buy him a pizza. "Do we have a deal?" she asks.

"Yes!" Theron says. "I will beat you."

Theron stays at the tournament until the very end of the second day, watching his teammates. His mother and Teague stop by, but they don't linger too long. During the closing awards ceremony, Theron watches as two girls from the Denver Center for International Studies, a pair he and Teague have defeated a few times before, take first place. It's the first time his name isn't called at all.

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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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