3rd Reflection, Comin’ Home
Former Eastern High School student Marian Kennedy came into our debate program four years ago as an honors student who made friends easily. Through my set of limited interactions as her debate coach, I unfairly saw her as an inappropriate, loud, young, and forceful student.
However, after leaving our program for a while and then returning, a new set of interactions created by an improved and evolving curriculum, let me see the Marian that was there all along: a mature, thoughtful, determined, conscious, academically excellent, gifted social activist, poised to do anything she pleases as she enters the “real world.”
I, nor my debate program, can take the credit for my perception of her “transformation,” because much of it was evident when she arrived, I just didn’t see it. But there is no question that her return to Davidson 101 happened because Marian found something in our squad room that she needed and we were able to provide.
Her first semester, after the first tournament, Marian returned angry that she had not been a winner. She was not alone as the entire squad suffered many more losses than wins during that time frame. It’s funny that most evaluate success by wins and losses: in grades, in faculty evaluation, and in sports teams. And that was the Marian I thought entered our program. Ironically, she told me what we needed to do to win. She told me, the Debate Coach, with over twenty-five years in the game, and six years teaching students how to beat Goliath by willingly assuming the role of David, that we needed to do what the judges told us to do.
And while the truth was that I couldn’t at that time tell Marian with any real certainty what we needed to do, I knew the one thing that wouldn’t lead us towards social change, would be to follow the lead of a majority of debate judges whose primary interest was to see us compete more like everyone else, and stop our insistence of trying to be different. It is just a fact that doing so would make our opponents, and our judges much more comfortable with our existence.
Marian didn’t understand that her ability to show up in the varsity division of a major college tournament was a direct result of my choice to create a different type of debate team. We created a space for Marian, who had no previous debate experience, one that challenged the existing conventions which made what used to be an oral activity now about speaking as fast as humanly possible (up to 400 words a minute), taking furious and detailed notes to follow the rate of delivery, and having judges construct debate decisions based on a very specific and narrow set of conventions that by themselves have little to do with the quality of one’s advocacy.
It wasn’t long before Marian traded in those losses and left. Gone for a couple of years, she eventually returned with a new attitude and a determination that I hadn’t see since she came back from that first tournament. A little older, now a single mother, now seeing her education as a fight for the future of her family, the wins and losses meant a lot less than participation in a program with a motto, that whether successful or not, promised to change the world. This time Marian needed real world change, not just a win in a game.
Our squad mission statement, “Effective Decision Making for a Multicultural Democracy” takes on new meaning for debaters who leave the comfort of our squad room then return. I’ve seen it happen over and over. Why? Because my staff, namely program coordinator Tiffany Dillard-Knox and her assistant Mary Mudd, have figured out how to perfect and actualize a theory discussed in educational reform literature by scholar bell hooks.
The “homeplace” is a site of resistance that creates a safe space for anyone who sits in a world as a cultural minority, i.e., “different.” hooks talks about the gaze that someone different faces from a majority that looks, thinks, and feels the same.
In Davidson 101, you are usually different for a variety of reasons: perhaps you are a racial, gender or sexual minority, or perhaps you just like hanging with a different group of people, and in either case, you are cast in the role of minority when you travel to a debate tournament, refusing to compete the way the majority does.
Fighting for the right to be different usually has many dimensions involving the building of coalitions with others facing similar issues with their difference.
But it is even more complicated than that: the program we’ve created to provide that homeplace doesn’t fit in the existing academic structure. Homeplaces don’t exist in the academy: either you are an academic program, an academic support service, or a competitive team.
But Davidson 101 is all three, throwing in a lot of social justice activism on top of that. hooks talks about the importance of “purpose” which creates a bond that ties the people in the program together and creates an element of family, similar to the black experience during slavery and segregation.
Marian’s return saw her coming out party as a social activist. Speeches that touched my soul, like my favorite when she took MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and remixed it like the best rapper or DJ, creating a new masterpiece that discusses why the debate community has failed to cash the check of diversity promised in its organizational mission statements. The Cross Examination Debate Association’s says that
“actively encourage participation in all forms of academic debate as a means to create personal leadership, transformation and growth; embrace a diversity of ideas and participants in order to foster an appreciation of the complexity and richness of human existence; promote the value of argumentative discourse as a means of producing reasoned, measured, cooperative solutions to contemporary problems of social and political significance.”
That’s a failed promise that the evaluation procedures in college policy debate can’t deliver, at least to a team that created such radical difference from the norm. But in Davidson 101, that homeplace is real, just ask my students that keep competing despite the losses.
Oh, you can ask me too. When I was arrested this summer, appropriately banned from my squad room during our fall retreat until I took and passed a fitness-for-duty exam, I learned how much love had been created.
Instead of my personal presence, I wrote a narrative telling the students my context for and side of the story, anticipating my return as their coach and wanting to address their legitimate concerns of safety. And I certainly understand that a piece of paper to an administrator doesn’t change how I am perceived as a result of those events, and rightly so, and for some all the pyschiatric exams, stories and blogs in the world won’t change their perception of me either. Fair enough.
That’s why I was shocked when after the retreat Mrs. Dillard-Knox said most of the debaters felt a closer connection to me reading my story, without my presence than she had seen in the previous nine years I was present as their instructor. And I felt that love and much respect when I arrived a week later, after receiving the blessing to return by University administration.
But in that moment, when I re-entered that room the only thing that mattered was helping my students succeed. Why? Because I knew I was home, and a loving home motivates a person to succeed in whatever they do.
And just like the Civil Rights Movement that many just celebrated this past month, our group of debaters, graduate assistants, and staff for the last ten years have been winners, and our homeplace contributes to all of our success. Our students and staff may or may not stand poised to turn those losses into large amounts of competitive success, but they are a part of some of the most important educational reforms of our lifetimes, like how the successful creation of “homeplaces” for cultural minorites can close the academic achievement gap. And that success is grounded in some of the same civil rights protest strategies that fundamentally changed our society forever.
Thanks Marian for coming home.
By Dr. Ede Warner, Jr.
Director of Malcolm X Debate Society/Associate Professor of Pan-African Studies, both at the University of Louisville