Monday, March 4, 2013

This isn't a Cinderella story

Think of all of the movies you know where the hard working underdog, with the sense of charm and self deprecation finishes victorious.  Cue the french horns.   I sorta thought I was going to get to be part of that sort of story this past weekend.  I wasn't.

This story started for me four years ago when I started "coaching" the Ravenwood debate team. The phenomenal Kari Smith
 was coaching and when we moved to Ravenwood I asked her if she wanted some help with the debate team.  She did.  Not sure who I heard this quote from, but it so fits my personality: "Volunteer!  Figure out how to do it later!"  Walking into the debate practice the first day I had no idea how to even do public forum debate.  A couple of years of policy debate and a couple of years of Lincoln Douglas didn't really teach me what I needed to know about public forum.  I tried to not let the kids sniff my fear.  They can do that you know.

The kids.  Debate kids are just a different breed.  That day the room was full of a handful of kids--nerdy, brilliant, crazy loud and opinionated.  For that hour that day I watched them all play the game of "who is the smartest in the room."  Seemed like they were all smarter than me.  But just because they were smart, didn't mean they could debate.  They were eager.  Eager...but not good.  They would get up to speak and well....let's just say that at the point if we had a trophy case we wouldn't be making any room in it.  The kids ummed and uhhed.  They rocked when they talked. They yelled over each other.  They spoke in monotones and talked themselves in circles.  But they were excited and adorable and I just loved them all instantly.

Over the following years I would have the chance to work with some amazing coaches.  First of all, anyone who knows Kari Smith is in awe of her.  She breathes forensics.  And everything she touches is quality.  Getting to have my own children coached and taught by Kari was the hugest privilege.  Getting to work with her helping to get debate up and really running was a blast.  In addition, I was able to work with Abby Andrews.
 We got to hire her for awhile before she moved to coach debate and although she had never debated she came to the program with loads of forensics experience and was really helpful at helping the kids get consistent about practice and to set a higher bar for themselves.  I missed Abby greatly when she had to move and then later, was devastated to lose Kari when she left Ravenwood to go to grad school.

But meanwhile, Ravenwood debaters were getting better.  Those freshmen?  The ones who rocked and ummed and uhhed?  They weren't freshman anymore.  And that means they weren't freshmen debaters anyomore.  They were making points.  Winning rounds.  Doing some of the best research of any of the teams in the area.  And we were having so much fun.  But we still weren't bringing home many trophies. And these are the kind of kids you want to win.

The team captain, Paul Drexler, is one of those kids that teachers and coaches talk about years after they are gone.  His leadership, as well as those of many of his peers, has been stellar--hours and hours of work.    I could go on and on about each of the kids-: Ryan's mad research skills, watching Nikhil in debate rounds  go from shy and stumbling to confident and fierce, Niko, who I want to kill and congratulate at the same time because he is funny and a smartbutt, Kelsey and Jacob, the partners who can seem go goofy you forget how smart they are...these are just some of the kids. There are more:  Frances Ding, who is so brilliant and talented we had to share her with way too many other "genius sports," Michael who is so charming that I am sure that if decides to be President he will be.  This year I got new kids who hit the ground running, including Drew, the best freshman debater I have ever worked with and Grant, his partner, whose one-liners make us all crack up. Nathan, who started as a junior and looked like he was scared out of his mind his first few rounds  just made quarter finals at his last tournament.  Briefly this year we have had two more female debaters besides Kelsey and Frances--Khadija and Lexie, who both are also so good at other things we don't get them much but they still come around because our team is so much fun.

Did I mention fun?  We have laughed and laughed and there are so many inside jokes and poems and songs and moments you just had to be there--I would tell about them but you really did have to be there.  But picture this crazy smart, sarcastically funny group of kids.  At one point earlier on, I looked around the room and saw only one girl in this whole group of boys and said "Guys!  We have to get some girls in here."  Without missing a beat, one of the debaters took a slow look around the room and said, "ummm....does it look like we can get girls?"  Not that these boys minded.  Last year they adopted a new slogan:

So, this is all rambling.  I get that.  But as I have watched these kids over the years I have become their biggest cheerleader.  They all got better.  And better. And better.  And we went from the school with no program, to the school to beat.  In fact, last year the kids chose our theme song "all we do is win"  because we were winning that much.  It felt good. Not gonna lie.

So fast forward to this year and my speech at the beginning of the year. Let me just be straight and say that I really, really, really wanted at least one of our teams to qualify to compete at Nationals.  This year was so important to me because I had coached these kids through their freshman year to their senior year and for several of them this was their last chance and they so deserved it.   My speech the first week:  "Okay folks, someone in here is going to nationals.  It is our year to finally send a debate team to nationals and we will work and work and then we will win! Because that is what we do!"  So this year we have worked so hard.  Each tournament we have brought home trophies.  If you had seen us years ago, you would cheer for us.  Because you would love this Cinderella story.

And then it was time for our National Qualifying Tournament.  From the beginning, everything just wasn't going our way.  Kids couldn't make it (This is the superbowl of debate people!  Don't you want to go to the Super Bowl?  AGGGHHH..the troubles of having smart kids involved in lots of things)...we had one week to learn everything you ever wanted to know about mandating health care insurance and we were all exhausted from a three day long tournament the weekend before.  But if this were the movies, this would be the part where you would see that although the odds were stacked against us, we persevered and at the very last minute...A MIRACLE!!!  AN INCREDIBLE MIRACLE!!!  WE WON!!!

But it isn't that story.  This is the story of how my best team at "our playoffs for the Super Bowl" --nat quals, how we got all the way to the very end...and lost.  They lost in a a 2-1 decision, one vote away from everything they had worked for.

And it broke my heart.  I have said for four years I wanted to send a team to nationals and I was convinced  this was my year.  It broke my heart because these kids are the heroes of the story.  They deserved it. They deserved it because they are brilliant and kind and have spent years building up this team and they just are that "movie team" that you want to win.  Even worse, they lost to the "Goliath" team that wins all the time, who walked in expecting to stomp our team.  Blech.  See, don't you wish they had lost?  If not, then picture all the cocky bad guy characters in every final scene of all the movies like Rocky or Karate Kid and then you'll know why you should have wanted them to lose.
 Imagine Rocky losing in the end.  Or Daniel-san's final match ending up in a 2-1 loss and the credits rolling and you may be able to picture how Mr. Miyagi would be feeling and then perhaps you could understand why I am just so sad.

So, this isn't a Cinderella story.  It is the story of genius, talented kids who will have so many opportunities ahead of them that they will never even care about that moment when they missed getting to go to nationals.  Years of debate mean these kids know about health care, gun control, immigration, failed nations, climate change, mandating immunizations, poverty..and so much more.  Their  years of debate will serve them well into their futures filled with limitless possibilities.  So I guess, it will be that kind of movie.  That one defining moment was not this past weekend.  But the defining moments of working with these kids for four years and how they have shaped me...well, that's the stuff movies can be made of.