Debater by Accident: The High School Years (Part 1 of 2)

accident |ˈaks idənt|
1 a crash
2 likely dangerous
3 cartwheels into your life—
then vanishes.

Yet every accident leaves a mark.

When I was young, I never thought I’d be able to speak in front of an audience, much less debate against an equally intelligent opponent, but I did. This is a story about how life conspired to save me by making me crash into debate, which made me fall, fall really hard, as it broke me out of my crippling shyness. Every time I stood in front of an audience and began my speech, my presence, my voice filled up the room. With my ideas, I faced the crowd, and with my passion, I connected and communicated to my audience.

So how bad was my “condition”? I was so shy; I could never buy anything from the sari-sari store because I was too afraid to talk to the tindera. If a saleslady approached me in a department store or boutique, I would immediately exit the premises, utterly afraid that I’ll be approached by another friendly face.

Irrational fear of phone calls made my eardrums shutdown. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than answering the phone’s alarming rings. That is, up until I experienced dialing a set of numbers and making an actual call. My mom usually forced me to make a call, and my cheeks would redden as I say to the receiver puwede po kay tito/tita?

When I had my first barkada, I realized I had an obligation to call them. My few and far between calling experiences became very problematic. This predicament manifested itself during my first ever long phone call with my friend. In six hours, I managed to say lots of ah, uhuh, naks, talaga, and gosh. Not wanting to repeat this, I decided to sharpen my conversation skills. The question was how. Then, it hit me. It was so simple. All I had to do was to prepare a List of Things to Talk About before a phone call (I also prepared a similar list for everyday conversations).

Sometimes I’d be stuck with a mix of different people. The group I’m with would start talking, and I’d try to clear my throat and attempt to say something. Screech. Stop. Silence. My shyness would let me hear a brake screeching to a halt, gridlocked in the traffic of doubts, ensuring that my voice will be there, on a standstill, jammed at the back of my throat.

I was afraid. Terrified that people would say that my idea was stupid, or worse, that they wouldn’t say anything at all. The group’s response of dead silence after I’ve enthusiastically quacked about something I thought was great was like a big yellow school bus smashing into me as if I weren’t there. Silence ends when someone says something completely unrelated to what I just said. Everyone would chime in on that interesting topic, painfully leaving my comment in the dustbins of awkwardness.

Unlike my friends, who’d be understanding whenever I peeked into my list of topics for everyday conversations, or, at the most, would giggle in amusement, highly entertained that I had such a list, I knew that other people wouldn’t find my habit so delightful, or even normal. I couldn’t think of a solution to my problem. It seemed like an impossible problem, and so I decided to look for an equally impossible solution. This impossible solution didn’t prove to be so elusive. For there it was, deep inside my mind, in the free flowing impossibilities of my imagination. I called my solution imagined conversations or recreating scenarios where I actually talked, erased some comment that I stupidly made, responded with a more witty response, or even cracked a joke.

Within these fantasies, silence ended reign. Awake from these fantasies, I’d remember that I was in a world of silence. I hated it. I abhorred my crippling shyness, but it had power over me. It was my identity. No carefully thought out list could cross out my shyness. No fantasy could make confidence real. I thought I was screwed for life.

Misconceptions about Debate

I was in my first year in high school in an all-girls private school when I heard about debate. My friends heard about it too, and they all wanted to join. I did not get what the fuss was all about. For some sort of reason, I thought debate was where boring geeks sit around grunting You’re wrong; No, you’re wrong. Then, I heard a rumor that the debate club was where all the cool bullies, but nonetheless bullies, go to, that debate was simply barahan—a crude and artless way of humiliating your opponent so that you can have your way, that you’ll win a debate once you were able to make your opponent shut up so you can triumphantly say Ano, barado ka?

I wasn’t the confrontational type, so mingling with bullies who’d try to shut me up didn’t sit well with me. My friends told me that the debate club was one of the top clubs in high school, but I did not get excited. Hitching on the bandwagon towards Debate Land was out of the question. I was exceedingly proud of my ability to withstand peer pressure, so my friend’s pleas and encouragement didn’t stand a chance. I even said, Marian, yang debate-debate na yan, hinding-hindi ako sasali.

I debated until I graduated from college. What the hell happened?

The Yellow School Bus and the Other Door

It wasn’t peer pressure that made me tryout for debate—it was a yellow school bus and an elusive door. I was going to audition for the glee club because I loved singing. As a freshie, I wasn’t familiar with the high school campus. Even if I came from the grade school, I never saw the high school campus because kids weren’t allowed to go there.

My glee club prospects all depended on the campus map. It was easy enough to understand. I went up the white spiral staircase. At the top was a corridor, then I turned to the left wing and passed by a few classrooms. A small floor ran perpendicular to that corridor. I turned right, and there it was—the door to the music room. Except there was a sign that said, Please use the other door.

There were only two doors near it, and both of them were on the left side of the music room door. I tried the one right beside the music room. There were shelves filled with VHS tapes, cd players, and speakers. I approached a man wearing a drab gray collared shirt and asked him if this was the music room. He said, Hindi, AVR ito, yung katabi yung music room, pointing to the direction of the door with the sign.

I went out of that room. I didn’t know what to do. If the door after the AVR room was the other door that the sign was pertaining to, it would mean that there was an AVR in the middle of the two doors that led to the same music room. That didn’t make sense, but I decided to check it out. Maybe they have some weird architecture thing, I desperately hoped. Entering that room, I was greeted by a maroon piano. My heart gave a big leap, but when I looked around, no one was there. All I saw were three yellow benches, a little room with a small glass window, a wall that looked like white fences, and indigo curtains draping the sides of the walls. I consulted my campus map, and I saw a box that represented the room that I was in, inside were letters that spelled Speech Room. The elusive other door of the music room was still out of reach.

Maybe the other door meant another room, I thought. I combed the campus trying to look for it. I was shy to ask people for help. After walking around the campus twice, I mustered up the courage to approach a friendly looking janitor, and I asked him where the music room was. To my horror, he pointed to the same direction that I had already taken, up the spiral staircase. I thanked him because I was too shy to ask if there was another door. I went around the campus again. My feet started aching. I forced myself to ask a couple more people, and I even went back to the AVR room and asked if someone knew where the other door was. The only door that they all knew was the one above the spiral staircase.

I was so engrossed with looking for that stupid other door that I didn’t realize that it was already five o’clock. Panicking, I immediately ran toward the gate beside the clinic, dashed out of the high school campus and into the road, pelted past the wired fences separating the road and the café huts, and finally hit the gravel of the parking lot. A sea of white L300 vans swept around me. Nothing was yellow. A horrible realization came over me.

My school bus wasn’t there anymore.

Friend to the Rescue

After realizing that the school bus left me, I hyperventilated for a while up until I remembered my friend Trina. Remembering that I had a rich friend who had a car calmed me. She and I don’t live near each other, but my house was on the way to hers. Well, not really, but she’s rich, has a car, and is bored by the long travel home. Sometimes, when I feel lazy to go home by bus, or I want to go home earlier, I would ask her to bring me home. Of course we gave her lots of gifts, like mangoes, rambotan, lansones, and other fruits to thank her.

That day she was willing to bring me home, but she said, Pero late ako makakauwi kasi mag-aaudition ako sa debate. Audition ka na rin para di sayang oras mo. So I said ok. The only club that I auditioned before that was badminton club. It was so humiliating. I put on this athletic attire. My friend even watched my audition to cheer me on. I wasn’t able to return a single shuttlecock. So without a doubt, I was sure I wouldn’t pass that audition. The deadline for the club sign ups was fast approaching, and I still didn’t have a club, so I thought I had nothing to lose if I auditioned for debate. I’ll just go in, make a fool out of myself, get the hell out, and they’ll never remember me anyway—end of story. In the unlikely chance that I would get in, at least I’d get to be clubmates with my friend.

The Auditions

The auditions set up was like this: there were two classrooms. The first classroom held all the people who were auditioning. Once it’s your turn, you’ll draw a topic, prepare your speech in the hallway (you’ll be given note cards to write the main ideas of your speech), enter the second classroom, and present your speech to a panel of judges.

A girl with high cheekbones, a really pointy nose, and extremely straight long jet-black hair, went inside the first room. She said, We really appreciate honesty. So if you’re given a phrase to complete, she turned to the blackboard and pointed to the scrawl of white chalk, ‘A quick brown fox jumped over the’ blank, and the first thing that comes too your mind is ‘shit’. Say it. We all laughed. A really beautiful girl with a fair complexion, cute dimples, and a round face also had an announcement to make. She said, There will be two professional debaters in the second room. They are our coaches. Don’t be afraid of them. They won’t ask you anything. They’ll just sit and observe.

Some people had to go home early, and my friend was kind enough to volunteer to be the last one to tryout. We were there for hours, waiting for our turn, but we didn’t get bored. We kept on talking and talking. During the wait, a tall and lanky girl with pasty skin named Loucriste approached us, and out of the blue, she said, Okay guys, complete the sentence, great minds think like…Without hesitation my friend and I said, Me. The Loucriste’s eyebrow shot up, and she said, Ows talaga, sasabihin niyo yun? We were like, yes. So she went away and began to bother other people with the same question. What was that all about? I asked Trina. Wala lang yun. Just Loucriste being Loucriste, she said.

It took forever until it was my turn to pick a topic. The beautiful girl with the round face held her hands together, shook the pieces of paper in her hands, and made me draw my topic. I unfolded the multifolded paper. Black ink jumped out of the tiny white sheet—Rock is the new pop. I panicked for a while because I hated rock. My friend again came to the rescue. She always raved about her favorite rock bands like Linkin Park and Metallica. Aided with those memories, I started scribbling down some notes. Beside me was Trina. She was preparing her speech on promises are meant to be broken. My friend went inside the second room, I heard her, and she was totally great. While she was still inside, the beautiful girl came out of the room. She asked me if I was doing okay. I said I had a mental block, and that my speech was starting to become redundant. She said some encouraging words, and then she said, Ay sige na nga di na kita guguluhin. I said, Hindi, okay lang. She stood beside me, silent. When it seemed like my friend’s audition was about to end, the girl touched my hand. I was startled. She said, good, di ka malamig, di ka kinakabahan. The second she let go of me; I felt my hands go numb, cold, and sweaty. My hands also started to shake. Great timing, I silently scolded myself.

I entered the room, and my whole body stiffened. Not wanting the judges to think I was scared, I deliberately swished my arms back and forth so that my walk would look natural. Please write your name and section, the girl with the pointy nose said. I turned around, and faced the blackboard. Slowly, I took the chalk from the blackboard, hoping that by the time the chalk hits the board’s surface, I’d actually remember my name. I was that scared. I remembered the tune I used to sing when I was a kid. This was something that I invented so that I would remember how to spell my name. J-A-S-M-I-N-E C-R-U-Z, I silently sang as the chalk moved across the blackboard. Screech, screech, screech, the chalk wrote my name. Tick toc. Eternity. Eternity.

I faced front and started my speech. Let’s face it pop is dead…I said quoting Chris Kirkpatrick’s joke. I was so into it. I started saying Nsync just butters up girls making us think that someday we’ll be their girlfriend (current hit song of Nsync during that time was Girlfriend), Rock is more sincere. Rock songs are about pain, and since all of us experience pain, we can all relate to it. I was so proud of myself, but when I was finished, the girl with the pointy nose said, that’s it? I nodded, feeling foolish. God! How short was it? They asked me some questions, and I think I answered them well. They turned to the professional debaters and asked if they had questions for me. I was like Hey! Weren’t they supposed to just shut up? (Of course I didn’t say that out loud.) Thankfully, they didn’t have any questions. Di siguro maka-relate kasi pang-teenager yung topic, I thought.

My audition was about to end. I was so relieved. I actually got through it alive. The panel looked at each other as though telepathically communicating, Do you guys have any other questions? My body tilted to the door, my feet in the position to get the hell out of there. I waited. Waited for them to say that I could leave. But the girl with the pointy nose looked up. She looked at me straight in the eye. Something was wrong. She opened her mouth. I heard her say, Please complete the sentence, she was pointing to something on the board. Why was that phrase so familiar? I thought. Goose bumps erupted. I turned around. The expanse of the green blackboard came in sight. At the far left corner was something I did not notice when I wrote my name. There were letters. Big letters. To my horror the letters said Great minds think like…I looked at the words in utter disbelief. You’ve got to be kidding me. Regret crept into my heart—Why didn’t I take Loucriste’s question seriously?

Like a slow drum beat, some unimaginable sound began in my head. Wait. It wasn’t drums; it was a chant. Me, Me, Me. Growing louder and louder. Me, Me, Me. All I could think of was Me, Me, Me. They were waiting for me to say something. I couldn’t think of anything else, so I said, “Me”. As soon as that two-letter word left my mouth, like a house-elf, I had to fight the strong urge to bang my head on the table. The word was still ringing in my ears. Me, Me, Me. When my audition was over, I quickly tried to gather all my bags, but I wasn’t quick enough. The beautiful girl approached me and she said, Great minds think like you, really? I was like yeah, looking at the floor. Stupid, I thought. This will be the only thing that I’ll regret.

I went out the audition room, and I hugged Trina. We both giggled, happy that we did this thing. We went to the vendo and bought some sodas. After we drank the contents, we crushed them under our feet and placed them in our pockets so that we’ll have souvenirs. It was already dark and the high school looked deserted. A silver van that looked like Trina’s car sped through. We jumped up and down and waved, but the driver didn’t see us. We ran like mad chasing the van. We were running near the grassy grounds of a building when I suddenly remembered something. I stopped, extended my right arm to stop my friend and, without thinking, blurted out, Gusto mong mamatay? We looked down, and there it was. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and we saw a dark snake-like path just two inches away from our feet—the creek slithered underneath. There were no fences to protect us from the steep fall. We decided to walk on the concrete road, so we’d be safe from the creek. We soon found my friend’s car and we went home safely.

The Rejection Letters

Morning came, Trina and I dashed to the club bulletin board. There was a list of those who passed the audition. We were both not on it, but our other friend, Anna, was on the list (she was so lucky, she also passed the first audition for the literary paper, and now she was just waiting for the results of the literary paper’s second screening). She assured us that maybe the list wasn’t updated. We were the last ones to audition yesterday, so maybe they haven’t released the results of our audition. Hoping she was right, we said goodbye to each other and went to our classrooms.

In the middle of homeroom, two girls went to our classroom. They asked our teacher if they could talk to Sophia and Jasmine. Sophia was our grade school valedictorian, so I couldn’t understand why I would be lumped with her (I was always on the honor roll in grade school, but I never even got into the top 10). The girls turned out to be members of the debate club. They gave us letters, which held the results of our auditions. I was embarrassed to open the letter in front of Sophia. I knew she would pass, but what if I didn’t? The girls from the debate club insisted that I open it, so I had no choice.

I couldn’t believe it. I passed! I was so happy I couldn’t say anything to the girls. I just nodded as they told us about our first club meeting. The recess bell rang, and I was so excited. I immediately ran to our tambayan, with my letter in my hand, arms waving like mad, I shouted Nakapasa ako sa debate! I was expecting that Trina would jump up and down saying Ako rin! and we would hug each other and everything would be great. Instead, she said Buti ka pa. Turns out, she hadn’t receive a letter yet, and she was worried that this means that she didn’t get in. I consoled her saying that I’m sure she got chosen, and that maybe her letter would be delivered later. Hoping to cheer her up, Anna said Diba you know Mika from debate? I mean she loves you! We were like What? Anna clarified I mean as a friend of course. Ano ba kayo? Marian arrived and she said she got a letter from the debate club. For a split second we were going to say congrats, but she said it was a rejection letter.

Later during lunch, Trina showed us her rejection letter from the debate club, and Anna tearfully announced that she didn’t pass the second screening for the literary paper. It was a complete nightmare.

From Bad to Detrimental

Since Anna didn’t pass the auditions for the literary paper, she went to the debate club. I thought, although it would have been more fun if Trina were in the debate club, at least I still had a friend in the club. No one could believe I got in debate. Every time someone asked what my club was, and I would say debate, they would say What?! Debate, Ikawww?!!!

Anna and I were still part of the neophytes, and during that time the club had a rule that neophytes weren’t allowed to compete for a year. Instead, we were required to watch the older ones (the contingent) train and compete.

The first time I saw the contingent train, I noticed that they were all using words that I didn’t understand. By listening to them I realized that instead of saying “bad”, they’d say “detrimental”. They never said, “worsen,” they’d say, “exacerbate.” If they want to say, “I agree with that,” they’d say, “I concede”. One of my clubmates even had a favorite word, and it was “perspicacity”. Phrases like “people might get angry” were dropped in favor of “that will antagonize society”. Never say “destroy”, one must say “eradicate”. Sophisticated words like “nuance,” “assumption,” “deterrence,” “discourse,” “propensity,” “safeguard,” “backlash,” “tokenistic,” and many more, easily slipped from their lips. I realized that debate had its own vocabulary. No one in high school other than us knew such words. I felt so smart and a little smug. It was awesome. This specialized vocabulary makes it easy to spot a debater. It is rare that someone who says these words wasn’t a debater once upon a time.

However, as much as debate widened my vocabulary, debate also worsened it. The debate community sometimes uses “fake words” or versions of words that aren’t technically approved by the dictionary like “antagonization” (proper form: antagonizing), “effectivity” (proper form: effectiveness), “nuancing” (proper form: nuances, nuanced), “invisiblize” (more people use this word now though), operationalize (this word became popular later on) etc., but we all understood each other, so I guess those words work. They just don’t work when I unwittingly include them in my English papers.

Never Quit

The first debate tournament that I went to was called the Interscholastic Debate Association (IDeA) where high school teams from all over Manila competed. For that event, I wasn’t part of the competing teams, but I was excited to observe. Before the tournament started, there were seminars about debate. We were shown powerpoints that explained the rules of debate. I didn’t understand a thing, but I was too shy to ask questions.

During lunchtime, we discovered that only the ones competing were allowed to eat the free lunch. The older club members didn’t even tell us that. The school cafeteria was closed because it was a Saturday. Anna and I were scared to venture out of the school to find some food. We’ve never been out of our houses or the school without an adult coz we were kids. Our stomachs were grumbling though, so we knew we had to face our fears. Not far from the school we found a pearl shake store. We went inside and ordered kikiam and pearl shakes. Right after we drank the pearl shakes, Anna remembered that she read an article that said that some pearl shakes had drugs in them. Our heads started spinning, so we quickly paid our bill and ran away from the store. I don’t think those pearl shakes had drugs in them. I think we were just uber paranoid. We were fine shortly after our trip to the pearl shake store.

We returned to the school trying to look for the other girls from our school. We saw the second year girls who were newbies of the club. Against our better judgment, we followed them. They went inside a classroom to watch a debate, so we also went there. One girl turned to us and said, “Why do you keep following us?” and another one said, “We hate your batch”. Anna and I stopped following them. We went to the roof of the building, and we cried. We made a pinky swear that no matter how hard that batch tried to make us quit, we will never quit. This will be our club until we’re in fourth year high school, we promised. We will never, never, never quit.

The next year I quit.

Mass Quitting

Resentment was brewing in our batch. Since neophytes weren’t allowed to compete for a year, we were getting bored. Sometimes the club lets us do some speaking exercises, but they never let us debate. I remember saying to Anna, Nabubulok na ako dito.

One time, the club president announced that for the first time there would be a tournament for the neophytes. She said she strongly encourages the neophytes to tryout. If we’re interested, she’s going to post a sign up sheet on the club board. My batch was really shy. We were scared to tryout, so to encourage each other, we decided that we’ll all tryout. We asked Rabang and Raisa to be the ones to sign us all up on the club board. I was so happy. We promised each other that we’ll help each other train and matterload (read up on every possible debate topic).

The next club meeting arrived. I was so excited to see president’s enthusiastic reaction. She always lectures the neophytes about our lack of dedication to the club. Now we’ve completely shown that we were interested by signing up for the competition. Instead of being happy, the president got suspicious. She said that she saw people signing not just their names but other names as well. She decided to do a roll call of the people who were listed on the sign up sheet, and she asked each one if they really wanted to tryout. The first one who was called was Anna. She really wanted to tryout, but when she was asked, “So do you really want to tryout?” she got so shy, so she said, “No.” I also said no, and it broke my heart. When the president reached the end of the list, all the neophytes said no. The president got angry. “So no one wants to tryout?” and she lectured us again about club dedication.

At that point I so hated her. Didn’t she know we were just so intimidated that’s why we weren’t participating? It’s not that we don’t want to participate. Most of the time we feel like we’re not welcome. Why did she make it so hard for us to feel like we belong here? Why the hell did she doubt the list? I mean if they really didn’t want to tryout, they’d go up to her and tell her. So in the end, no one tried out. That was it for me. I realized it was useless for me to stay in this club. Our batch caught on a mass-quitting wave, and I joined it.

From debate, almost any club that I’d join would look like a fall from grace, and unluckily, I fell down towards the computer club. Don’t get me wrong, I have high respect for smart people, and Steve Jobs is like one of my heroes in terms of being a tech visionary (I still condemn his bad boss ways and other petulant behaviors), but this computer club wasn’t where little Steve Jobs came to play. This was a turn-on-the-computer-and-do-whatever-you-like club. People who sign up for this are people who want to waste their time playing SIMS or surfing the net. You don’t really learn anything in that club except boredom. I don’t really know why I chose the most boring club ever. You didn’t even need to tryout, you just write name, and you’re in. Maybe that was it. I chose it because it was easy.

People found out that I quit debate, and they were like Bakit?! I was confused. In the past, people would raise their eyebrows when they found out that I was in debate, highly doubtful that I had it in me to be successful. Now I already quit, happy now? They weren’t. I wasn’t either. So after a few months, I asked my friend Anna if we can talk to the new debate president and ask if I can go back.

Embracing Arguing

When I returned to the club, the club’s coach, Lester, introduced us to a girl named Bianca. She was intelligent, intimidating, and cool. Lester would focus on training the contingent, while Bianca would train the newbies, and eventually Bianca coached all of us and the distinction between neophytes and the contingent disappeared. During the start of our sessions with Bianca, we had a bootcamp wherein we had two days where we slept over someone else’s house, and Bianca taught us debate. I think it was Bianca who taught me how to think. No other teacher I’ve had in my life has been as influential in my intellectual growth as she has been.

Through Bianca, I learned that debate had a lot of rules. The British Parliamentary (BP) was the first debate format I learned. To make us understand what the format looked like, Bianca drew a diagram to show us the speaking order in a debate. The first time I saw that diagram, I was like: fudge, I’ll never remember all of that. The diagram showed that in every debate there were two sides: government and opposition. All teams on government side must agree with the motion (topic of the debate), while teams at opposition side must disagree. Government side was composed of two teams: opening government (OG) and closing government (CG). Opposition side was composed of opening opposition (OO) and closing opposition (CO). Each team was composed of two people. OG was composed of the Prime Minister (PM) and Deputy Prime Minister (DPM). OO was composed of the Leader of the Opposition (LO) and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (DLO). CG was composed of the Member of Government (MG) and the Government Whip (GW). CO was composed of the Member of the Opposition (MO) and the Opposition Whip (OW).

Each side takes turns in speaking, and there are certain rules that govern each speaker. Two basic roles are to argue (give proofs and explain your claim) and to rebut (destroy the arguments of your opponents by exposing the logical flaws, inconsistencies in argumentation, factual inaccuracies, and other flaws).

Each speaker can also give a point of information (POI) to the debaters on the opposite side. When a speaker is delivering a speech, his or her opponents can stand up, raise their hand, and say “Point”. The speaker can either tell the opponent to sit down or the speaker can accept the POI. If the POI is accepted, it can be used to ask a question, point out something that was wrong in the opponent’s speech, or make a comment related to the debate. POIs should only be fifteen seconds long, so they must be short and sweet. Sometimes opponents badger meaning they keep on standing up right after they were asked to sit down. My high school debate partner, Carla, experienced this. After saying, “Sit down, I’ll take you later” several times, she had enough, so she said, “Patience is a virtue, sit down!”

For the British Parliamentary format, seven minutes is the time given to complete a speech, with a grace period extension of thirty seconds. Being under time or overtime will be taken against the speaker. My first ever debate speech lasted for a minute, and I thought I spoke so long. It took awhile until I stopped hearing, That’s it?

There can be forty to a hundred teams competing in a tournament. Multiply the team number by two (or three if the tournament uses other formats like the Asians format or Australasians format), and you’ll have the total number of speakers. The competition starts with the preliminary rounds (number varies per tournament, examples: three, seven, eight, nine, etc.). For these rounds, the teams are separated into rooms, they debate, then they will be ranked. If it’s BP, first place gets three points, second place gets two, third place gets one, and fourth place gets zero. If there are two teams, the winner gets one point, the loser gets zero. At the end of the preliminary rounds, there’s an event called the break night where the top thirty-two teams (number varies in other tournaments) are announced. When you get into the top teams, you qualify for the break rounds. You can also say that you’ve broken. You can congratulate a team who qualified for the break rounds by saying, “Congrats for breaking!”

The breaking teams get to compete in the break rounds, which are the octofinals, the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the finals (some tournaments have pre-octofinals or don’t have octofinals). In the break rounds in the British Parliament format, you must get first place or second place to advance to the next round. In Asians and Australasians format, you must win in order to get to the higher round. This continues until the final round (the four best teams for British Parliament format and two best teams for Asians and Asutralasians format compete), and one team is proclaimed the champion. The top ten speakers of the tournament will also be announced, and these will be based on the speaker scores during the preliminary rounds.

For the British Parliamentary format, you will only know the topic (referred to as the motion) fifteen minutes before the debate starts. Only a few tournaments announce the motions before the competition. Some tournaments have themes like “economics” or “environment”. Some tournaments have thirty minutes preparation time.

To become a successful debater, you must have matter. Matter is information about everything that is debatable. When I say know everything, I mean everything, because debate topics can range from Paris Hilton to the International Monetary Bank. Most of the time you can predict the topics because they are about current events or issues.

Since no one has a completely massive memory, people are allowed to bring books, newspapers, and other printed materials. You are not allowed to bring any electronic device except an electronic dictionary. There was a time when it became fashionable to bring matter strollers like the ones grade school children use to haul all their schoolbooks, up until people realized how ridiculous those humongous bags were. Really, how can you sift through all that paper when you have limited time to prepare your speech? Then again, I think I also brought a stroller for a few tournaments. Soon enough though, that trend shriveled up and died.

If you don’t matterload (read up on everything), you can leech off on your geeky well-read teammate, or you can have great manner. Manner is the way you speak, and this includes a projection of confidence, the emotion in your delivery, a lack of stuttering, great language, etc. Sometimes people who have good manner can hoodwink unsophisticated adjes or adjudicators (who are there to judge a debate and make decisions as to who won) into thinking that the debater is saying something great, when really it’s all bullshit. You can get away with great manner until you are assigned to a more intelligent adj. On the flip side, having only matter and no manner can also get you into trouble once you’re faced with an opponent who knows a lot and is as confident as hell.

Can You Still have Principles?

You don’t get to pick the side you are defending because it is randomly assigned. A debate club member once quipped that Pag-naging debater ka na, mawawalan ka na ng prinsipyo. Some people might get disturbed because debaters can passionately decry abortion in one debate, and then fervently support it in another. If you can do such a thing, defend anything even if it runs contrary to your personal beliefs, don’t you lose a certain level of integrity? Do you violate your conscience? Do you become a soulless individual who can fake conviction at will?

Sharms, one of the debaters that I idolize, disagrees with this opinion. She told me that her years of debating and competing all over the world led her to meet many debaters. The one thing she noticed was that most of them were very passionate about a certain issue. Reflecting on this observation, she realized that debate could strengthen one’s beliefs. One can defend beliefs better if you actually know and understand the arguments of the other side. Instead of instantly getting red in the face and screaming, “Heathen, repent for your sins!” one can actually engage in an intelligent discussion with someone who doesn’t share your beliefs. Debate also teaches you to listen and understand where your opponent is coming from. When one understands how the opponent thinks, one will be able to know the individual’s loopholes in logic, unexamined assumptions, and lack of knowledge. This will help you persuade your opponent.

What if listening to your opponent makes you question your beliefs? This isn’t a bad thing. As Mark Twain said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”. The process of unearthing truth is through dialogue. I’m not saying that other people have the truth, but testing an idea through other modes of thought will significantly help one unearth the truth. Our own vantage point is limited, and thus to understand the complexity of reality, we must take into consideration the different angles of an issue, and we must re-evaluate our position in accordance to the new information that we have gathered. Sometimes our parents, teachers, and other authority figures pass down their beliefs to us, and we have swallowed it whole without even examining the logic behind them. Debate is the antidote to blindly believing in what authority figures have taught us. When debate precedes belief, it can save you from narrow-mindedness and even bigotry. There is a value in learning both sides of the story, and that’s what debate teaches.

Sometimes going through doubt strengthens our beliefs. As Francis Bacon said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubt, he shall end in certainties.” Once we’ve made an informed choice, nothing can stir our hearts. We know and understand all the counter-arguments, and have realized that one side is more convincing. Doubt before you believe. Fear belief when you haven’t doubted. It is easy to doubt an assumption; it is harder to tear down a well-examined thought.

Wrong Never, Right Never

On the first day of the Inquirer Inter-School Debate Championships (IISDC), Trina took me home. I said goodbye to my debate partner Carla, slightly smiling, assuring her that we can do this. When I went inside the car, I broke down and cried. I’ve been debating for so long, I said through my tears, but nothing has ever happened. I’ve broken several times but I never get passed breaking. Now it was my last year in high school, and it seemed like we’re not even going to break. I was so sad; I didn’t want to show up the next day. I wanted to just walk out of there and never return. I wanted to give up. I thought of Carla, and I knew that it would be unfair to her if I just walked out. So I just settled for never coming back to debate after the tournament.

The next day, there were five rounds and the last three were silent rounds, so we will not know the results until break night. We needed to win the last three rounds and it seemed impossible. At break night, I wasn’t expecting anything, then the impossible happened, Carla and I broke, and we broke 4th out of 32 teams.

The first round of the break rounds was the octofinals. Glenn was our adjudicator. The motion was about giving death penalty to minors. We were closing opposition. Our case was: giving death penalty was unfair because of the lack of parallelism between the level of privilege (ex: voting, right to marry, financial contracts) and the level of responsibility (ex: death penalty) given to minors. The whip of government side was the only one who could respond to us. We weren’t rebutted. After the debate, Carla asked me what I thought. I said there was one obvious thing: we were ignored. It can be a bad thing—we weren’t engaged in the debate, so we are out of the debate. It can be a good thing—we had such brilliant points that they couldn’t think of a way to rebut us.

We broke into the quarterfinals. After the announcement, Sharms, our coach, told us that Glenn was raving about us in the adj room. From then on, whenever we had great debates, we call it Glenn debates. But I felt pressured by what Sharms said. But after that, we got into the semifinals. When we talked to the adj, she said that they were all sure that we won, it was a no-brainer decision, but we looked nervous. She encouraged us and said that we could do it.

In the semifinals, we got opening government. We were fucking scared. The motion was that homosexuals shouldn’t celebrate the rise of the global gay. Our opponents were Gica and Anna who consistently reached the finals and have been champions in previous tournaments, another team who already reached the finals last year, and another team who had a really famous member. I thought we did well, but Carla lost hope during the round. But I was still in the fight-to-the-end mode. I kept POI-ing even though I knew we didn’t stand a chance. I finally felt that I got them when I questioned the closing opposition’s case of a gay template providing room for acceptance when I asked “How can these templates pave the way to acceptance when it marginalizes against culturally nuanced identities?”

After the semis, I felt so relieved that I forgot my bag inside the room where the adjes were deliberating about our round. I had to go back into the room, and it was so embarrassing. When I explained that I had to get my bag, one of the adjes said, “hurry up”, and she was very cross. But fate was against me because I didn’t realize that I left my Tupperware full of rice and ulam open, and it spilled all over the table. I tried to clean up the mess as quickly as I could. Then one of the adjes Bobby said, “Alam ninyo ba ung Prime Minister,” in a joking way and all the adjes laughed. I was the Prime Minister of that debate.

Carla and I relocated to the venue of the finals while waiting for the announcement of the results of the semis. The closing opposition sat near us, and I overheard one of them saying, in a very arrogant way, “Ugh, I’m so not in the mood for finals today “. I thought to myself, fuck you, you dont’ want to go to finals, ako nalang taninga, ako nalang! And took their spot we did. It was so unbelievable! We got into the finals! Just yesterday I wanted to give up but now I’m going to the finals! Now every time I want to give up, I remember this event, so that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to give up.

Sadly, we lost the finals, and we were so abysmally bad during that round because we couldn’t comprehend the motion. It had super hard, with words like “co-optation”, which we didn’t understand. We heard that when Glenn watched us, he said, “Anong nangyari sa kanila?” Ugh, we know, we were really so bad. It was embarrassing. Still, it was unbelievable that we got that far when I was at the point of giving up. It is equally unbelievable given that I came from being so cripplingly shy, and now I was able to debate in front of a crowd. But my debate story wasn’t over yet. I was about to go to college and debate there. During my college years, I made it my goal that I would at the least be a national debate champion. Did I achieve my goal? What happened in my college debate years? Watch out for my next essay.

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