The end of March coincided with the end of Boston Debate League's 2021-2022 season, its first featuring in-person competition since the pandemic forced it into the digital ether. It also saw the reappearance of in-person volunteer adjudicators, who are trained on the spot before taking their place upon the judgment seat, and then in the quiet of a library to complete their ballots, determine points and winners, and render their decisions.

That’s how I found myself in a cab on a Friday afternoon headed to Boston Latin Academy. Bounding up the school's Old World stairs two at a time, I made my way to the library and checked in as a visitor to sit among a smattering of adults, varying in temperaments from nervous to genuinely curious to hype. We were all there to judge middle schoolers in a debate tournament, and we were all volunteers.

In its purest form, volunteer work plugs you into a community, and in this particular case, that means watching middle school kids from around the way argue how only middle schoolers can, with a deluge of breathless rhetoric, elocution be damned. But debate is a skill, and requires its own unique rules that many adults are clearly unfamiliar with. As Ash Heeley of Josiah Quincy Upper School put it: “Adults arguing is very messy, and some of them don't even make the correct points and stuff.” These kids know how argument works; they’ll be alright.

The handful of months on either side of the cusp of adolescence is a mystifying one. You're beginning to understand your place in the world; you're beginning to have opinions and form valid and logical arguments and yet it’s easy to feel like the adults in the room aren’t taking you seriously. You aren't a child, per se, but you are far from an adult and you are relative light years away from the fully formed brain that develops in the mid-20s.

Boston University child development researcher Jonathan Zaff thinks about this a lot, and explained this period of brain activity. "Your whole brain is the house, and the first zero to five years is when you're creating infrastructure for your house," he said.

This what-goes-on-inside-the-building metaphor can be extended into the real world, considering Zaff's observation of Debate-Inspired Classrooms, a BDL program that features coaches working with teachers to bring the spirit of debate into the classroom. As Zaff pointed out, "in our new world order of misinformation you can see the application of those debate skills being really essential; to be able to interrogate information, and to ask 'what is your source?' 'why did you say that?' 'let me, interrogate your source and say, that's a bad source.'"

American classrooms, he argued, aren't generally equipped to handle these kinds of interactions. Programs like Debate-Inspired Classrooms reassess this fixed idea of learning, encouraging teachers to think of themselves as facilitators in discussion, and welcome students to needle them and further explain their reasoning.

Middle School Finals
Middle school students prepare for the debate finals.
Boston Debate League Boston Debate League

Kim Willingham, the BDL's director, delights in this level of youth involvement. She and I have the shared experience of growing up in a culture that emphasizes being seen and not heard, and generally staying out of "adult" conversation. "The thing is, they're not being combative," said Willingham. "I think people hear argumentation and think it's something evil or bad or disrespectful. But these young people are saying, 'look, I have thoughts about a matter, and I'm going to be able to ground it in evidence. I'm going to be able to tell you why I believe what I believe.'"

Willingham understands that every kid isn't going to want to participate in competitive debate. But her conviction is so great that the skills it imparts are indispensable that she’s driven to bring the spirit of debate to those who don't actively seek it. "I especially think for young people of color, it is important because so often they are rendered invisible; they are told to be quiet," she explained. "I think [debate] is really powerful, and it's a tool that they can use, whether it's saying 'I'm the right candidate for a job' or 'I'm the right person to get into your school.' I think it amplifies their agency and just equips them with skills that they need and can use in the world.”

But amidst all the theorizing about how great debate can be for kids, it's important not to forget one crucial fact: most kids that debate love it. "I've never really done debate before," said Jason Furtado of the BCLA/McCormack School. "I never heard of it. I just joined it because I heard that it would get my grade up. But actually, after I joined, it was a very fun experience."

Talk to enough middle and high schoolers and you realize that this is a community; debate kids, like band kids and theater kids, occupy their own social space. Take Evelyn Flores and Ana Luna Maldonado, both juniors, of the Somerville debate team. For the former, debate was a space that allowed her to "come out of her shell," while the latter appreciated how it helped her "find a group of friends and expand her social circle," even though she is shy and introverted.

For junior and debate president Eliana Rivas of Fenway High School, debate was so important to her that she brought it back to her school after a two year hiatus. "COVID hit in my sophomore year, I was doing debate on my own," Rivas recalled. "We didn't have a coach... My partner wasn't feeling like doing debate online, so I had to do it on my own. But I know how beneficial debate was for me throughout this whole time and the opportunities that it brought me, so I really wanted to start debate again."

After a season of self-coaching and competing alongside students from Brighton, Rivas worked with her principal at Fenway to bring in a coach and revive the debate team. In February, they placed second in the city championships, after competing in just one other tournament in their latest incarnation.

Last week, current events and debate coalesced as student debaters found a fellow enthusiast in Ketanji Brown Jackson who thanked her high school debate coach during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Her remarks resonated at last week’s city championship. Debate judge Frank Irizarry asked the room, "Have you been watching the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings?" A few people in the room nodded. He continued, "For those of you who haven't, after thanking her family — I kid you not — the next person she thanked was her debate coach.”

He then spoke directly to the four middle school varsity debate finalists: Alana Laforest, Ava Levine-Fried, Maritza Castano and Yurie Lee. "Seeing you young ladies tonight, and how you performed tonight, I see future doctors. I see future debate coaches. I see future Supreme Court justices."

Be quiet; the kids in the room are talking.