Debate team finds success at states



Brookline Speech and Debate had several finalists at the recent state tournament.

Dunkin’ or Starbucks? Does pineapple belong on pizza? Is civil disobedience in a democracy morally justified? While all lead to lively debates, the last question is one you would hear if you stopped by a Speech and Debate team meeting.

Just three years ago, four members made up the entire Speech and Debate team. Now, the team is exceeding 30 members and brought home the varsity state title on March 27.

Speech and Debate consists of both varsity and novice levels and is best described as “structured arguing,” according to junior and captain Charlotte Stokes. The team receives about two months per case to research, write, practice and collaborate before their competitions, where they put their work into action by deliberating their topic against someone from another school, arguing the opposite side in the presence of a judge.

At the state tournament, junior Rohan Sekhar won first place as the state champion for the Varsity level. Stokes placed as a semifinalist, and junior varsity member Ananda Geller placed as a quarterfinalist. In the novice level, freshman Piero Bravo Santiago was a semifinalist, freshman Flo Spent was a quarterfinalist and freshmen Brett Schneider, Ravin Bhatia and sophomore Tina Li were octafinalists.

In addition to their success at states, eight of the 13 members brought home medals in their Lincoln Sudbury competition back in November. Stokes also qualified for the two grand national tournaments which will take place later this spring.

While being almost completely self-taught, the debate team has an adviser for the first time this year: physics teacher Graciela Mohamedi.

Stokes said having Mohamedi’s help with the organizational aspects of the team has allowed her to focus her efforts on teaching debate.

“When I started last year, we didn’t have any adult help. So now it’s really great that we have an advisor, but it’s mainly taught by me and a few of the other varsity members,” Stokes said.

Stokes said leading the high school club sparked an interest in teaching debate, something she’s grown to love more than actually debating.

“Teaching is my new favorite thing to do. I love being able to see new kids get into debate and get really confused and flustered and not know what they’re doing and then be able to coach them through it until they ultimately win the state tournament. It’s the most fulfilling thing for me,” Stokes said.

Stokes said it is unique for debate teams to be self-taught because many other schools they compete against have paid coaches and debate electives in their schools.

“I love being a self-taught team and being able to say that we’re Brookline, the one who has been winning all the time. Lexington has five paid coaches for their team, and yet we’re still beating them. I love the feeling of being able to win and say it was all us,” Stokes said.

Sophomore and novice member Isabel Galea said debate is more about life skills and the community than the physical medals.

“The biggest thing that it’s taught me is how to think on the spot. In argumentative essays in school, you’ve got time to work on them, even debates in school, you’re not ever directly having to think of things on the spot. But in debate, you write a case, but you can only use that for the first six minutes of your actual debate, and then the rest of the time you have to be thinking on the spot,” Galea said.

Another skill debaters learn is public speaking. Improving his public speaking is something Bravo Santiago said he made a goal of doing this season.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve always had a fear of public speaking, so I didn’t really know if debate was best for me. But it turns out, it’s not that bad. Debate really helped me with that fear,” Bravo Santiago said.

In addition to thinking on the spot and public speaking, Stokes said a unique aspect of debate is that both individual work and teamwork are highly important.

“It’s a skill that a lot of sports and other clubs don’t really work with. It’s either the team or the individual and not becoming better, and also helping everyone be better at the same time. Debate does a really great job of that. It is, in the end, an individual event, but if you don’t have a cohesive team, if you’re not working with your team, you’re not going to do well,” Stokes said. “It’s really important to both focus on your own performance, and also help everyone else and be part of that community.”

In debate tournaments, competitors are not aware of which side of the argument they will be arguing until just minutes before the competition. This means teams prepare both sides of the resolution and may be arguing a side they don’t personally agree with.

Bravo Santiago said this rule opened his eyes to other peoples’ viewpoints and opinions to understand both sides of arguments when at first, he only agreed with one.

The team’s eyes are set on the final stretch of their season with nationals coming up this spring. Stokes said their goal is to close out a tournament, meaning Brookline debaters place in all the top spots, like they did during novice states last year.

“We want to keep flooding the debate tournaments with Brookline people and have them win all the time. That’s our goal. We’re just gonna keep going, keep learning, and see where it takes us,” Stokes said.