This morning I was invited to return to policy debate. A season opening scrimmage happened in Manhattan. I didn't have anything better to do, plus I have been feeling off ever since the start of the semester, so I accepted.
I am not really into policy debate. I said farewell to U.S. policy debate in 2004, and haven't really done much with it since then. But I figured I could help out some new people. At least, I hoped they would be new debaters, as I don't know how helpful I could possibly be to those who are a bit more advanced in it. But I love teaching very much, I love debate more than I think I do, and I really wanted to do something other than sit around and feel anxious all day.
When I arrived, even on the train into Manhattan, it hadn't crossed my mind what day today is. It was half way through a pretty messy, pretty beginner policy debate, when thinking about how weird the negative block is, that I realized it was September 11th.
The Negative Block struck me as weird, for the first time ever, because I suddenly thought about how the two negative speakers speak back to back, but are unrelated in their task. One is providing more constructive arguments or evidence, and the second begins the rebuttals, or summary speeches, of the debate. They are connected, but they might as well be in different dimensions - one is constructing, one is providing summation and answering, but both are connected in what they are doing.
Likewise, times and places are connected by the presences of things that turn up. On September 11th, 2001 I was working on a policy debate case. I had woken up early and my new roommates were not up yet. I had only been in Rochester a few days, maybe four at the most. I barely knew anyone, and Texas seemed like another planet. I figured there was no better way to start the day, and deal with my anxieties over the new, then to do some debate work. I typed away on the case, and realized how quiet it was in the house. I turned on the TV just in time to see everything start going down. When my roommate woke up, he ambled into the room and I pointed out that we were under attack. We just watched. My other roommate was on the phone discussing it with her father. Needless to say, I stopped working on debate. We watched TV and talked. We heard classes were cancelled. We wondered if anyone would want to learn debate - and how important was debate now? We had a debate team meeting the next night that was quite small compared to our opening meeting, but people still came. We were hosting the season opening tournament that year - only a couple of weeks after 9/11. Although we discussed the possibility, we decided to still have it. We had practice rounds, we taught, we cut cards, and we worked together on building ideas. And it was fine. It was really great actually. My favorite year of life thus far. It was my real formal introduction to being a University debate coach, and it brought me some wonderful, memorable moments both personally and as a teacher.
I only stopped work on debate that one day, but debate never stopped working on me. I don't think once it has. It's always been there working away, working me over, doing something - even when I abandoned it. And even during that crazy time 9 years ago and the months that followed it, we were better for being in debate. It brought me some of my greatest experiences and some life-long friends. It still does. And I'm still floored by the transformative effect it has on people. I often wonder why I am permitted to do this work.
All of this came to me during a very disjointed, very confused, and very scattered negative block delivered by some very earnest but very, very green debaters. And I realized that policy debate, novice training, New York, and September 11th all came together, again, and connected then to now. Here to there. Different people, different places in life, but still there were these novices, here were those bad arguments,those frustrated faces, and me trying to explain to them how to do better. A lot has changed in the world in 9 years, but one wonderful thing connects the me of then to the me of now. And I wake up every day so thankful to be permitted to participate in it.
And for as bad as things were that day, how scared we were, or for as bad as things are in the world since that day, it was a moment that clearly presented to me the power of this art across time and across geography. Linking then to now, here to there, times change but they don't, things are different, but they always were. At least there are always bright people willing to take a beautiful Saturday morning and work on presenting complex ideas to one another because they sincerely believe that given the right persuasive argument at the right moment said in the right way, you can change another person. And that seems as true and present today as it was on that terrible day. Connected.
What a surprising way to mark this anniversary.