Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Tia Speece on Conquering Classism and Sexism to Win the 2019 High School Debate Championship
by Tia Speece, Debater at Kenston High School and the 2019 High School Debate Championship Winner
I started debate in my sophomore year, the same year that my school initiated its program. I was one of two kids that showed up for the team. I had no idea what I was doing. I learned from my opponents, soaking up anything I could from each round I was in. I wore the same suit every weekend: an ill-fitting brown tweed pantsuit that my mom had found in a thrift store, and which looked like it came straight out of Austin Powers.
I did not truly experience the extent of classism and sexism in debate until this year. Dirty tricks. Coaches stealing my cases for their kids. Schools covering up boys’ blatant sexism directed toward me. Even though it frustrated me, I tried to use it as motivation. When the game seemed rigged from the start, I wanted to win anyway.
The debaters for City Club are chosen because they are the top two at the national qualifying tournament, colloquially called “Bigs.” I’ve always struggled with anxiety, never nearly as bad as during and leading up to debates. It’s productive in some ways, like keeping me up for countless nights running arguments through my head, but destructive in that I can hardly eat or sleep for days leading up to big tournaments. In the Cleveland district, I’ve become infamous for carting along boxes of energy drinks to tournaments, and drinking at least 3 on any given day. I knew very well what the history of Bigs had been: decades of private schools switching around, Hawken, US, Laurel, Hawken, US, Gilmour. Being from a public school, it was that wish to change the cycle that drove me to give my all in every round. When I found out that it was myself and Ally that had qualified, and that we would be the first all-female City Club in history, it felt like a victory in itself.
The day of City Club, I woke up, took a shower, did my makeup, decided between a cactus and cat print button up (I chose cacti,) and organized all of my papers and evidence. I threw up from nerves at least once, and blared music through my apartment to distract myself. On the way downtown, I was on the phone with my best friend, Isaiah, who had won City Club the previous year. We had talked on the phone for at least 3 hours every day leading up to City Club. Probably about 5% of the calls was dedicated to actual cases and arguments, and 95% was what he calls “white noise”--motivational pep talks that always ended up in the same place as where they started, but calmed me down in my most frantic moments nonetheless. As I headed into the ground-level doors, he gave me parting words of belief and love, which gave me a boost of motivation.
Already at my table were my mom and my coach, Matt Slencsak. At the beginning of the year, knowing that I couldn’t pay him, he offered his help to me anyway. At States the week before, I expressed to him that I was disappointed in my performance in the final round. He gave me a hug, and said, “Tia, I want you to know that I sent all of my kids to watch your rounds, because you’re the only debater here that I want them to be like.” Having an audience full of supporters helped me keep my cool throughout.
The topic we would be debating was, “Resolved: The illegal use of drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not criminal justice.” I wanted Affirmative. My case was airtight. It was not only logically sound and empirically supported, but it told a nuanced, compelling story. My style of debate lends itself to telling stories: weaving a narrative out of words, hand movements, tone, and emphasis. I had pages of rhetoric and one-liners. It was going to be great. And then I lost the coin toss.
I had to switch my entire mindset when I got Negative. I re-evaluated my strategy: now, instead of going for the story, I was going for the logic. I was going to use my longer speech times to speak slowly enough to maintain my style, but quickly enough to add responses on Ally’s case: enough so that, if she wanted to respond to all of them, she’d have to speak way too fast, and sacrifice her story and rhetoric. Then, in my last speech, I’d frame the debate the way that I needed it to be seen: that this was not a round about morality, or philosophy, or thought experiments. This was a roundabout policy, stone cold facts, and real world impacts. And to tie it all up with a proverbial bow, I used my last few seconds to summarize my entire position: “When we are discussing policy, and we are discussing policy, you cannot vote with your heart. You have to vote with your head.” I thought it was enough, but I couldn’t be sure.
When my name was called as the champion, I heard cheers from my friends and family, and I felt an enormous amount of relief. What meant the most to me was seeing the tears in the eyes of everyone who had sacrificed so much for me: Matt, who had donated his time to coach me, my mom, who made my dreams in debate hers, and all of my friends that had become part of my team because they knew I didn’t have one.
I’m so grateful for being given the platform to show the larger point that I’ve desperately wanted to prove for three years now: that it doesn’t matter where you come from, or what gender you are, or how much money you have; that in an activity where using your voice is the name of the game, hard work speaks for itself.