It's 88 degrees in the sun, a tough break for the high school kids who've gathered from all over the country for the National Forensics League (NFL) tournament right here in Portland. The individual event results are posted in the windows of Smith Hall, facing out, so the kids have to stand outside in their polyester and rayon and acetate. They are hot and their clothes itch.
The tournament is all week, culminating in a final, all-day round at the Oregon Convention Center, with national academic prestige and over $125,000 in scholarship prizes at stake. These kids are pros. They are on their high school debate team and have won their state championship to be here. All 50 states are represented, along with three territories.
It's mid-week, and Chad has already been eliminated from his primary event: original oratory. He gave a prepared, persuasive speech on how words can hurt. It went well but he had some tough competition.
"I wasn't disappointed," he says. "All I can do is try my hardest. I guess I never really thought I'd make it here."
Chad is from Connersville, Indiana. Ball State, where he plans to go in the fall, is already trying to recruit him for the college forensics team. He is one of four from his high school team who have made it to nationals this year, a proud achievement as it's been six or seven years since his school made it past state at all.
"There's this other school in our district that always wins," he says. "They have 12 people here this year alone." It's political stuff. "I know this guy," Chad says, "who paid $200 for a dramatic play for his daughter. She won state."
Out of the four kids from Chad's school, there's only one left in the primary events. "He's doing an oratory on nerd discrimination, and how we have to learn to deal with each other," Chad explains. His face lights up. "He could go all the way."
At that moment the list of kids who have survived the next oratory cut is hung in the window. Some people in the crowd and shriek and jump and hug. Others begin to cry. Chad's teammate's number isn't on it. A squealing, curly-haired blond kid begins to run from person to person giving hugs. Chad shakes his head. "We just don't see stuff like this in Indiana," he says.
Even though Chad has also been cut from oratory, he still has a chance to win in his supplementary event, prose. Supplemental events include prose, poetry, expository, and commentary. These are the "soft events," the ones that don't require the large file boxes of research material that most of the kids carry with them in case someone asks them to, say, debate Russian democracy or military interventionism overseas.
The kids who don't make the cut for the main events, like Chad, go sit in a hallway in Smith Hall, to await the posting of the room numbers for the supplementary events. This is a tedious, crowded process. There are a lot of kids sitting and standing and huddled in small groups. Some are writing letters to their parents. The girls are touching up their make-up.
How times have changed. Not that long ago, Chad was your typical debater--a smart, nerdy kid who looked like a bank manager. But in the age of dot coms and smart chic, brains are not clique restricted. There are the drama kids, with their vests and pocket watches, the kids with shaved heads and piercings, the girls in snake skin pants and halter tops, the dread-locked black kids in suits, the preppy boys in Armani glasses, the coiffed girls in Anne Taylor. These kids are the smartest kids in the universe. And they, their parents, and their coaches are all focused on one thing today--winning.
The coordinators post the prose room assignments and the kids in the hall begin to break up to head to their respective event sites. Chad, his suit a little wrinkled now, trots across the Park Blocks to Montgomery Hall Lounge. There are 12 kids at MH Lounge, six in each flight, or group. That means that Chad has to compete against five other kids. The judge will then rate them one through six, and the top two will probably go on, and the rest will be cut for good.
While they wait to get started the kids introduce themselves to each other--"I'm from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."--talk about colleges--Columbia, Stanford, USC, Northwestern--and music--"I'm contemplating purchasing a Pink Floyd album."
The judge comes in, and everyone is suddenly quiet. Legs begin to bounce. She is in her 40's, and speaks with a thick North Carolina accent. Each kid has five minutes to perform a story of his or her choice.
The first flight goes. There are some good ones. A preppy kid in a white v-neck does a great Mexican American reading of a story about a man who sees a unicorn in his garden. A little blonde girl does a charming rendition of a woman's account of her engagements. And some bad ones. A kid in a shirt and tie does a reading from Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys by Dave Barry. The humor is average and he rushes through it and doesn't make eye contact.
Then it's Chad's flight.
The first competitor does a reading from God Said 'Ha!' by Julia Sweeney. She does a pretty good Julia Sweeney imitation, and gets some sympathy points even though it's Julia's brother who died of cancer, and not hers.
Chad is next. He reads a story called "Little George," about a little girl who is kidnapped from a suburban neighborhood. The story is told from the point of view of a neighbor who was the kidnapped girl's brother's age when his own brother was killed in Vietnam. It is a beautiful, timely story about the media defining our emotion, and the ability to feel loss. Much more sophisticated than Dave Barry. Chad is brilliant. He makes eye contact, he reads crisply, he paces the emotion of the story. He is grounded and intense and profound.
The next contestant is a hyper kid in a business suit who does a dated, overwrought, over-acted monologue about the differences between men and women. It is just this side of offensive, but he gets a lot of laughs.
The other kids do fine. One does another timely reading about a political shooting and the resulting media frenzy. He's good, dramatic, focused, well-rehearsed. After that, a blond WB-ish girl tells a Robert Fulghum story about a treasure box, which is all right but a little Hallmark-y. The last reading is about a man on a ledge and the policeman who comes to save him but ends up jumping.
After the kids have left, the judge explains the grading. "I look for emotion, interpretation of story, prose, literary merit, and conveying meaning."
She is a coach herself, and is here with her students from North Carolina. One of them, Chris Heath, is the North Carolina debate champion, and has won a full scholarship to Duke. "Have you heard of Duke?" she asks. Chris comes in then. He looks twelve and is wearing a cap that says Duke on it.
"Once Chris was on an airplane," the judge says, "and he saw Janet Reno. She was right there with the secret service and everything. Chris's mother went up to her and said, 'You're Janet Reno,' and she said, 'Yes,' and his mother said, 'My son knows everything about you--he's an expository debater,' and Janet Reno says that she was an expository debater too! Turns out she was the Florida state champion. Janet Reno!"
When asked about the event she has just judged she is less enthusiastic. "I thought most of them were boring," she says. She names a few that stood out. She mentions the Dave Barry reading, and the hyper kid who read about the difference between men and women.
She didn't like Chad's. "Sometimes it comes down to the kid's personality," she says.
Chris stands at her side nodding in his Duke cap. He is all Abercrombie and Fitch. An all-American, forensics jock.
"Debaters go on to do great things," the judge continues. "Bette Midler. That pretty Jane Pauley. Stone Phillips. They were all in forensics. Why every time I see that Stone Phillips I just think, Ohhh. Did you know that he is even more handsome in person?"
Chris is still standing there. The judge looks down at him proudly. For a minute she looks as if she's going to pat him on the head.
"These kids," she says, "the ones who win, can write their ticket to the Ivy League."
The ones who don't go back to Indiana.