Mustafa Arain saunters up to the podium in a near-empty classroom at Hamilton High School West. It’s the last match in the Colonial Valley Conference varsity debate league’s season. He’s calm and collected as he casually leans over the podium to begin his argument.
“Let’s skip the formalities and get right to it,” the 16-year-old Nottingham High School junior said before delving into his argument. West Windsor-Plainsboro High School teacher Aleksandra Odzakovic’s face, who is judging the debate, smiles.
On Nov. 17, 70 students from area high schools gathered in the high school cafeteria to prepare for the final debate before the championships, which will take place on Dec. 1 at Lawrence High School and culminate the season.
Twelve high schools compete in two divisions. The Valley division includes West Windsor-Plainsboro North, West Windsor-Plainsboro South, Hightstown, Robbinsville, Hopewell Valley Central and Mercer County Technical School. The Colonial Division is Lawrence, Hamilton West, Notre Dame, Nottingham, Trenton Main and Allentown.
As school buses idled in the parking lot and students filtered down the halls, Riley Gatto, Ameerah Flowers and Safa Mahgoub, the three students on Hamilton West’s varsity team, were already at their table prepping.
Gatto, 17, is a senior and has been debating since freshman year. She’s interested in pursuing makeup artistry as a career and believes her involvement in debate will help her when she gets into the business.
“This really helps me when speaking to the public, so if I was ever a business woman in that sense it would definitely help me in my career,” she said.
One thing the students and teachers can all agree on is the CVC debate league teaches the students valuable lessons and tools that will shape their futures.
Amber Donnelly, debate coach and an English teacher at Nottingham High School, believes debate prepares students for the practical research and public speaking skills students will need when they enter college.
“It’s one thing to write papers in class, but the interactions they get here are way above what they can get in class,” Donnelly explained. “Dealing with deadlines, social pressures, dealing with loss sometimes and having to regroup and strategize is all really beneficial for them.”
At another table, Revika Singh and her fellow Robbinsville High School teammates flip through their debate materials. She’s a junior and is debating for the first time this year. She says her teacher Keith Armstrong, who teaches world history, recruited her. She figured she already had experience debating her parents, so she tried out.
“I remember texting my dad and he said, ‘You already debate so much at home, you should give it a try,” Singh said.
Singh, Armstrong said, is “brilliant.” He believed she would thrive in debate. “The way she would talk about things in class came from a very mature perspective, I knew she would be able to handle herself in debate.”
Singh says she’s learning how to delve deep into issues with an open mind in order to form strong opinions.
“I think that’s really necessary in whatever field you go into because you always have to deal with criticism, and you really have to be sure about what you’re saying and be able to defend it really well in order to succeed,” she said.
The CVC debate league follows the Lincoln-Douglas debate format, named for the famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1885. A pair of two students from the same team argue on either the affirmative or negative position of a chosen statement, usually related to issues of policy. They each have eight minutes to give their speech and then are cross examined by a member of the opposing team.
President of the West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North team Ryan Zhang, 17, is a senior and has been debating since freshman year. Zhang plans to pursue government work in his future, so he says the skills he’s learning in debate will be invaluable to his future and has developed his interest in public policy.
“All of these policy topics are topics I may very well be confronting in real life one day,” Zhang said.
The students debate on a single topic, known in debate as a resolution, for the entirety of the school year. This year, the resolution is “The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.”
“Often these are current events that you just have to apply to your life as a citizen of the United States,” said Lucas Carsky-Wilson, 17, of Hopewell. “It’s like you’re shaping the future of the country.”
The students are judged on their delivery, reasoning, evidence, organization, and refutation. Judges, who are all debate coaches at their respective schools, use ballots in which they tally points to each team to determine the winner.
“I’m a social studies teacher so I’m nitpicky about evidence and quotes,” said Odzakovic. “If they’re not using analysis and evidence, I definitely mark them down, and a lot of students struggle with that.”
This is Odzakovic’s second year as a debate coach at West Windsor-Plainsboro North, and she says her students won their division last year. Currently, her team is first place in for the division.
“In general, the kids that are really good at public speaking are the ones that are up there and able to take the stage,” she said. “I would never have been able to do this in high school. I give them so much credit for being able to get up there and do what they do.”
Before the debate begins, Donnelly gives her students a pep-talk: “Eye of the tiger, clean up nicely, be calm cool and collected, firm and fair. Got it?”
Arain listens to his coach as he finishes off his bag of chips. He’s been active in debate since freshman year and he’s got the calm, cool and collected part down at this point. He says debate has made him more confident and assertive.
“One of the things I’ve learned in debate is it won’t ever matter how smart you are or how much information you know if you’re not able to convey it and convey it properly,” Arain said. “If you can’t spread your knowledge and defend your claims and information, for the most part your knowledge is all for not.”
He’s debating on the affirmative at this debate, but he doesn’t have a preference between affirmative and negative. He’s learned that most things aren’t always black and white, and that opinions can change, even his own. He says he used to be quite stubborn in his beliefs, but over the years has become more moderate.
“You really learn to analyze the gray areas,” he said.
When it’s time to debate, all the students head up to the second floor to find the classrooms that will serve as the evening’s debate floor.
Tonight, Arain and his teammate Amy Oliver are up against Hopewell and argue that since the United States no longer has a space shuttle program, the U.S. can strengthen its diplomatic relations with China and work together on a space program and explore the universe in tandem.
In the eight minutes he speaks, Arain slicks his hair away from his face often but rarely looks at his notes. His attitude is confident and he’s speaking with authority, but in the last minutes he changes his tone to a compassionate plea.
“When you are up in the NASA space station, you don’t see race, you don’t see borders. You see people,” he said.
After each student speaks, the opposing team cross examines the speaker with rapid-fire questions for three minutes. The cross examinations can get heated and to an outside observer, it’s borderline combative. To Shreyas Srinivasan it’s preparation for his future career.
Srinivasan, a 16-year-old West Windsor-Plainsboro South junior, wants to be a lawyer, specifically patent law and intellectual property. This is his third year in debate.
“Debate is really important for my legal career because it teaches you how to respond to opposing arguments and how to analyze different pieces of evidence,” Srinivasan said.
Srinivasan’s teammate, Aditya Iyer, 17, is in his senior year and after four years of debating in high school, he’s looking forward to debating next year in college.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Iyer said. “It’s become an important part of my life.”
After the students finish their debates, the teams trickle back into the cafeteria and before long, the room erupts into chaos. Judges report their scores and tally up the standings in marker on a purple project board. Some students gather around the board, standing on their toes to peek over each other’s shoulders while others search for their friends. Teachers hastily try to round up their students to get back to their buses.
Arain is standing with his Nottingham teammates.
“We won,” Arain said. “Undefeated all season. Undefeated my whole career. Just the championship now.”