It’s crunch time. Only days away from a meet at St. Sebastian’s School where teams from 20 different institutions in the region will compete, more than a dozen St. Paul’s School students squeeze in extra practice time after dinner. Senior members of the team help newcomers as they strategize and prepare for the approaching contest. Like many of their peers, they train for competition, but their arena isn’t the squash courts, the gridiron, or the turf. Rather, the Debate Team stands at the podiums of the Debating Association of New England Independent Schools (DANEIS). The league, now in its 41st year, draws competitors from peer schools for a test of wits and rhetorical skills.
These meetings are a crucial part of tournament preparation. Team members take turns debriefing their peers on a variety of current events and hot-button issues. The team competes in parliamentary-style debates, requiring participants to craft arguments within moments of being given their topics. “Two weeks ahead of a tournament our practice is about absorbing everything there is to know,” says Sixth Former Mary Kate Langan, who co-captains the group with formmates Estela Lacombe Franca and Josh Beirich.
The team draws from all facets of SPS student life. When not preparing to debate, members are engaged in Model UN, Mock Trial, The Tides, a student-created newsletter focused on global issues, and a multitude of interconnected disciplines.
"We stress that kids read a lot of current events," says Fifth Former Andrew Kapadia, an advanced member of the team. "You only have 10 minutes to form an argument, and you can't use the Internet." Recent arguments have centered on birthright citizenship, immigration, abortion rights, and drug testing in high schools.
Their approach is paying off. At the start of Winter Term, the team’s youngest members found themselves at the top of their divisions during a tournament at Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, Conn. Caleb Lee ’21, Khuan-Yu Hall ’21, Abbey Xu ’22, and Alexandra Vitkin ’20 placed first in the novice category. In pairs, Abbey ’22 and Alexandra ’20 placed first, and Abbey Xu also topped the individual novice bracket. In advanced competition, co-captain Estela Lacombe Franca ’19 placed second.
Close mentoring and intensive prep work have added to the collection of awards the team has earned throughout the season where they have placed either in the top three – or won – the majority of the half-dozen tournaments they’ve attended. Co-captain Josh Beirich ’19 also became the fourth student in as many years to qualify for the World Individual Debating and Speaking Championship (WIDPSC) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 11-16. Beirich didn’t just qualify once, but three times this season – and will compete in Toronto next month.
“Our advanced debaters, particularly the captains, really run the show,” says adviser Dr. Andy Gray. “They organize practices and introduce new debaters to the rules and expectations of parliamentary debate.” Since assuming the role of team adviser, Gray says he has been fortunate for the strong student leadership in the group. “They have always taken their role very seriously, generating excitement and enthusiasm among younger and less-experienced team members,” he says.