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Theron and Teague Harrison, Manual High School's top debaters and the subjects of our recent feature, "Say What?", left Denver yesterday bound for New York City and the Urban Debate National Championship. Their coach, Charlie Smith, went with them, as did debaters Danite Reda and Talon Lousignont from Thomas Jefferson High. Smith sends this diary about their first day in the Big Apple.
I started the day with a daunting task: picking up Teague and Theron at 4:30 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. flight to Manhattan. To my surprise, they sauntered out of the door ready to go, bags in hand. They were wearing jackets that depicted the New York skyline, which were bought months ago when they declared that they were going to make it to New York city to compete in the nationals. And here we were, taking the early morning trip toward that reality!!!
After a smooth flight, which was Theron's first ever, we landed in Manhattan, and I had the privilege to witness two amazing teens take it all in, and make sense of all the madness. The taxi cab drive was exactly what you would see in a movie: fast, furious, and daring. We ventured deep into the city of towering buildings and arrived at the Hilton, just a few blocks away from Central Park, Rockefeller Plaza, and Times Square.
After checking in, we hit the streets and had Philly cheesesteaks from a street vendor, and it was then that I saw the power of this experience begin to hit us all. Sitting and eating on the steps of a random skyscraper, Teague and Theron's worldview expanded as they watched a lonely man wailing on a lonely sax, people of all kinds moving in every direction, horns blowing sporadically, and the city exploding to life.
We then ventured into Central Park and got to see a totally different side of the Big Apple. Theron was amazed that there was wildlife in this wild city, and that rock formations jutted out of ground at odd angles, with people sunning on their rounded and smooth tops. After a short jaunt, we rounded our way back to the Hilton and prepared for the formal dinner of the evening.
The dinner began with a cocktail hour where we mingled with people who support the league and all of the fellow debaters from across the nation. Theron was not really into it at all, and was withdrawn in the lobby, following the Rockies game. Teague posted up at a table with the other debaters from Denver. I made acquaintance with several coaches and directors from Memphis and Atlanta.
They were both ready to hit the town and get this over with. However, their attention was piqued when they realized that our dinner seating was not only in the very front of the banquet hall, but with none other than Robin Roberts from Good Morning America. Theron quickly noted that she was also a sportscaster on ESPN (1990-2005). Tabled with six other journalists and producers from ABC News, the dinner began with lots of excited conversation about being a newscaster. The smiles on Teague and Theron's faces were priceless as they listened intently to stories of Robin's first job as a sportscaster in Mississippi for a measly $5.50 an hour. It was so amazing to see my debaters interacting with such amazing personalities and trading stories about their lives.
The president of ABC news, Ben Sherman, was the keynote speaker. He relayed a powerful message of how his high school debate experience truly shaped his life. I looked over to see Theron spellbound as he identified with the very same issues that debate had helped Mr. Sherman overcome: lack of passion for school, low grades, hanging with the wrong crowd, constantly arguing with parents and teachers.
Mr. Sherman brought his speech full circle with a powerful anecdote concerning the abduction of an ABC news team in Cairo, Egypt, just months earlier. The photographer, Akram Abi-hanna, used the power of persuasion to avoid certain death and secure their release. Akram was seated at our table as well. It brought tears to my eyes as Theron got up and went over to shake this amazing man's hand.
Teague and Theron's excitement became surreal when Robin Roberts invited us all to come and join them in the studio for Good Morning America! I quickly jotted down numbers and took directions as Teague gawked at the possibility of witnessing the show.
And so, I have been arranging plans with Good Morning America. With all the names of my crew spelled out correctly, it dawned on me that there is a chance of getting air-time tomorrow morning... Who knows...
And to think that we have already experienced so much, and the tournament hasn't even begun yet. Stay tuned!
More from our Follow That Story archives: "Manual High debaters on why they do it, despite the nerdy stereotypes."