It was the latter half of my ninth grade year, and my mother had started goading me about the necessity of extracurricular activities if I wanted to realize my vaguely collegiate ambitions (Stanford, Berkeley, or UC something) in the slightest. My school was relatively new, so there were probably only two or three options in terms of supplemental pursuits. And by some arbitrary process, I decided upon the school’s debate club.
Including me, there were three students in this upstart organization; the other two were studious girls with a full schedule of AP classes on the path to go to very good universities. I was not quite that academically diligent.
The day eventually came for a regional competition among all of the debate clubs of various schools, and this would end up being the first and only debate club event I ever attended. Very quickly, I noticed I was completely out of my element: unlike me, most of these kids were bookish, formal, privileged, and patently overambitious.
(Oddly enough, public speaking has never been my forte. I am so socially anxious that I can barely form a lucid sentence, and so socially aloof that I have no idea how what I will say will go over with a given audience. The latter of which I still deal with to this day—there is a rush of anxiety that comes with every blog post, tweet and public representation because I have no idea how people will react.)
If memory serves correct, there were three rounds of debate: debating of a random topic, biographical speeches on a notable cultural figure, and debating of a social issue. From these rounds, judges averaged scores and whoever went on progressed to something of some sort.
For whatever reason, I had the misfortune of attempting to argue the merits of even numbers versus odd numbers. This back-and-forth was an entirely unremarkable piece of discourse, and all I can recall is invoking the Star Wars films as substantive evidence.
However, one of the other debates in this first round—on whether rap music should be technically classified as music—was absolutely astonishing. Both of the two very, very white, upper-class kids discussing the pros and cons somehow lacked any real experience or authority to speak of with regards to rap music. During the debate, the pro kid admitted, “I mostly listen to classical music, and I have not listened to any modern music more recent than Simon & Garfunkel. But some of my colleagues have informed me that there is some of the hip-hop that is not about the sexual content and gangster violence like the music of Mr. M&M’s.” This was a fourteen-year-old, and I was stunned that someone could be so culturally isolated and voluntarily aloof of their adolescent milieu. If not knowing anything about the most significant American musical genre of a generation was the trade-off for academic overambition, I did not want to be academically overambitious.
The second round was my crowning achievement of the day, and I somehow managed to place in the top three speeches. I spoke about Johnny Knoxville—whom I didn’t really know anything about and still do not really know anything about—and how he was helping an entire generation “realize their inner jackass by hitting himself in the balls.” There was also some girl who gave a speech on Ashton Kutcher that I would learn five or six years later was completely made up. Being the gullible kid that I was, I assumed her fictitious description of Ashton’s orphanhood was true, and took his misdiagnosis of mental retardation and his dropping out of middle school at face value. If I had any idea I was allowed to lie, I probably would have won that round.
While waiting for the final debate round of the day, I struck up conversation with a cute girl a few years my senior who was next in line. Strangely enough, it turned out she went to a school not too far from mine. She wanted to “attend an Ivy League such as Harvard, Yale or Brown,” and not getting into those schools would have been utter failure in her eyes.
My final debate of the day was another boring one. The topic was whether rhinoplasty should be legal, and I ended up getting into some bizarre logical contortion that the practice was racist because of something about Jewish identity and big noses. It was by no means a stellar example of argumentation.
Right after me, the cute girl went up and debated the rising cost of health care. At one point, she explained her father had cancer and broke down in tears explaining the agony of the disease and financial hardships it caused her family. She gave a riveting performance, and I assume easily won the round.
As she sat back down in a desk adjacent to me, I whispered my condolences to her, which I think was a reasonable response given what it appeared her family must be going through.
“Oh don’t worry, that wasn’t true,” she told me.
“What wasn’t true?” I asked.
“The thing about my dad having cancer,” she replied.
I was totally flabbergasted, and in complete disbelief that someone would go to such an extent to win an academic competition. Then I asked her how she could do that without any qualms, and she dismissed the theatrics as “completely normal for this kind of competition.”
Immediately after this conversation, I had the epiphany that academic overambition was not for me. The typical dweebiness, being crazy, making up things—I could not relate to those on any level. This culture of defining yourself in accordance to the sole purpose of getting into a good university just came across as well-dressed dubiousness.
In hindsight, I am kind of amazed I had such a well-formed value system as a fifteen-year-old, and that I was already unwilling to compromise my sense of integrity for my own personal expedience.