Stories From a "Poor-School" Debater

by Sophia Khan

I started speech and debate my junior year. My sophomore English Teacher was the coach of my school’s team (which I had no idea existed) and talked me into trying it out. I attend a local public high school about 10 minutes (on a good day) away from my house with over 2,200 students in attendance. We have football games, weird senior traditions, and more clubs and activities than I can name off the top of my head. I’ve participated in several of these clubs (mainly DECA) and most, if not all were incredibly well funded mostly due to the fact that my school is located in an upper middle class suburb. 

I’m president of my school’s DECA Chapter, we have over 100 members, have a great reputation throughout our state and most of our members qualify to state every year and several make it to nationals. Raising money for our chapter has never really been a major point of concern within the duration of my now 3 years in DECA.

So, you can only imagine my surprise when my coach informed me our speech and debate team has to clean the football stadium every year to raise money for our program. Later on in the year, we had to walk around the school during homeroom selling donuts to give us some more funding. However, I never thought twice about what I was doing, I just assumed that this was the ‘norm’ for what all speech and debate teams do.

Yet even though my schools program may be underfunded, debaters on my team look just like every other debater at competitions. We (fortunately) can afford to dress up in formal attire and attend competitions locally almost every weekend. 

But, during just my first year in debate, I received several verbal criticisms from judges based off of the lack of resources I utilized during rounds. Judges said that I looked ‘unprepared’ due to not having a laptop in comparison to opponents that used MacBooks or that I looked ‘unprofessional’ because I didn’t use a laptop stand or have a briefcase/box filled with cards during my round. 

However, these comments that I received from judges and the hurt I felt from them pales in comparison to the way other debaters have treated me within the circuit. 

On numerous occasions, I have been scoffed at and looked down upon by my opponents simply due to the fact that I was not from a well known school. I had a femxle opponent ask me before our round which school I was from and how long I had been doing debate. Upon hearing my response, she immediately turned to her male partner and quite loudly informed him that she wasn’t nervous for this round anymore. Another femxle debater (from a well known private school) standing by also heard me say the name of my school and out loud asked, “Oh x school, isn’t that the school that- Nevermind…” and broke out into a fit of laughter alongside my two opponents. 

More than anything, these instances sound like middle school behavior and moments that honestly weren’t that big of a deal. But at the time, I felt embarrassed. I felt like I had some reason to feel ashamed about the school I came from. Many debaters have told me that they assumed I was ‘poor’ because I attend a public high school and that because of this, they also assumed my school’s program was ‘poor’ and ‘not very good.’ 

There is an idea in the debate community (from both judges and opponents) that there should be some sort of shame associated with being lower-income and/or coming from a lower-income debate program. For many, it also follows that being lower-income means you aren’t a good debater. 

I don’t have some sort of magical solution to fix these problems within the community. To be quite frank, I don’t know if there is any real perfect solution. But I wrote this blogpost in hopes of calling attention to a problem that is underrepresented in the debate community. No one should be made to feel any type of way about the amount of money themselves or their schools come from. Income and where you attend school shouldn’t matter in a debate round. Fancy ‘materials’ like a nice laptop or briefcase shouldn’t hold any weight when making a decision in a round and shouldn’t even be commented on. 

If you witness this behavior taking place at a competition, do not be a bystander. And if you hear a judge making these comments towards your opponent, say something. We all need to do a better job of supporting each other and making debate less cut-throat, elitist, and exclusive.

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