Book Excerpt: 'Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject To Debate'

Journalist and author Mark Oppenheimer was a precocious child. He argued about affirmative action with his parent's friends when he was seven, and in elementary school, he annoyed both peers and teachers with his verbal facility. But when he reached middle school, Mark discovered the debate club, a place where his loquaciousness would be an asset, not a drawback. Mark Oppenheimer became a champion debater, competing all over the world and he writes about those days in a new book, "Wisenheimer, A Childhood Subject to Debate," excerpted below.

When people hear that I was a high school debater, they usually just nod, trying to be kind; if they are less tactful, they scrunch their faces up into a look that means something like “But debaters are such losers.” An ex-girlfriend of mine—someone withwhom I had traveled the world, someone who had brought me home to meet her parents—told me after we’d been dating for a year that she had almost refused to go out with me because she’d heard that I’d once been a debater. She was not the only one for whom my past was a liability. Here’s the cruel irony: the better a debater

you are, the bigger a loser you’re assumed to be. A third-string member of the debate team, one who goes to just a couple of tournaments a year, might be a normal, likable guy. But a champion debater, a debate team captain, with a wall of gold-spray-painted trophies at home, is most definitely to be avoided.

I can’t pretend there isn’t something to the stereotype. It’s pretty much true that if juvenile delinquents are boys with too much time on their hands, debaters are those with too many words. High school debate and oratory draw heavily from the ranks of the annoying: the walking dictionary, the wordsharp, the talker, the gasser, the jiver, the bloviator, the wisenheimer.

You know this boy (he’s usually a boy). You went to high school with him, and even if the two of you never talked—even if you turned the other way when you saw him approaching by the lockers—you still know him, because you saw him on television or in

the movies. He’s Alex P. Keaton, the necktie-wearing young Republican on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties. He’s at least three characters played by Matthew Broderick and two played by Jason Bateman and one by Val Kilmer. He’s the boy with more brains than brawn. The boy who makes wisecracks from the sidelines of football games he’ll never play in.

In the movies, and in real life, this boy turns to debate because it’s the one place where he can be rewarded for talking. His teacher may get exasperated by his compulsive hand-raising, his parents may tell him to stop arguing and just accept “Because I said so!” and his friends may roll their eyes when he launches into yet another disquisition on drug legalization, the designated-hitter rule, or Apple versus IBM. But on the debate team, his facility with words and his fund of knowledge are unquestionably good. He may be useless at sports, but by debating he can win glory for his school. He may not have a wide circle of friends, but on the debate circuit he’ll meet peers from around the state, the country, even the world.

Sometimes, especially in the movies, debaters are even inspirational. In The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington coaches a team of debaters from an all-black college, and they are a credit to their race. In Thumbsucker, a 2005 movie based on a novel by Walter Kirn, the protagonist overcomes his thumb-sucking habit (with the help of Ritalin) to become a debate champion. In Rocket Science, from 2007, a boy with a debilitating stutter joins the debate team to get a girl; he can’t defeat his stutter or win the girl, but his futile attempts are nonetheless a kind of triumph.

But in the popular imagination debaters are more like Denis Cooverman, the profusely sweating protagonist of Larry Doyle’s 2007 comedic novel, I Love You, Beth Cooper. The night after he gives the valedictorian’s speech at the Buffalo Grove High  school commencement, Denis discovers that being good at interscholastic oratory doesn’t help when trying to score with a girl in a car: “Denis spoke nine languages, three of them real, had countless debate trophies (16), had won the Optimist’s Club Oratorical Contest with a speech the judges had called the most pessimistic they had ever heard. Was there no romantic line, no conversation starter, no charming anecdote, no bon mot, no riddle or limerick he could pull out of his ass right now?”

I’ll admit it: my younger self was part Denis Cooverman. I was also part Hollywood movie debate hero, part Alex P. Keaton, even part Kirk Cameron in the atrocious 1989 debate movie Listen to Me. I was all the stereotypes: girl-shy nerd, policy wonk, glib wiseass, credit to his school.

But I was also something more than that: I was a boy who loved language. For me, debate was not just about winning trophies or getting into college. It was aboutfinding the other boys and girls who cared about words. Becoming a debater was like finding my tribe. Once I had been lost, but now I was found. I was like a gambler seeing the lights of Las Vegas rise up before me in the desert. I was the adolescent Star Trek fan, ridiculed at school, finding love at a scifi convention. I was a Jew in the land of Israel. A rock climber in Yosemite. A gay boy at musical theater camp.

And debate wasn’t just about camaraderie. No movie has ever captured the  artistic ecstasy I found at those tournaments. One’s speech in a round of debate is, if everything is working just right, an eight-minute aria, with pauses for breath, with high notes and easy notes, with glimpses beyond the footlights to see if the audience is listening and to see if they love you. The aria has its distinct sections: approaching the lectern, pausing, rifling through sheaves of paper lightly jotted upon, greeting the audience—“Worthy opponents, honored colleagues, distinguished guests”—beginning, going off script and making eye contact, seeing that they’re with you, listening, listening some more, returning to the script, saying something you didn’t even know was funny, hearing them laugh, knowing that now they’re yours, pausing, clicking through the arguments, hearing your points land with a satisfying thud, hearing their murmurs of assent, casually adjusting the knot of your tie, improvising, seeing eyebrows arched knowingly and affirmingly, returning to the text, decelerating, perorating, offering thanks, stepping down.

All debaters love winning, but I also loved debating itself. I loved the aria of the speech and the ballet of the room, the debaters’ rising and sitting, gesturing and gesticulating. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but I never got upset when I lost—only when I stumbled over words or dropped an argument, or when a lame joke I never should have attempted fell flat. Speaking was an art; I’d always felt that way, since before I’d had the words to say so. As a kindergartner, I would ask adults about the differences between who and whom or further and farther. I listened closely to syntax, wondering why one boy would call another “a big fat idiot” instead of “a fat big idiot.” I could hear my heart beat when an orator paused dramatically, for effect. My parents hated Ronald Reagan, but I loved listening to him speak. He might not put language to the most agreeable ends (or so the adults told me), but he took language seriously, and I noticed. As a nine-year-old watching a black-and-white broadcast of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I started sobbing. In 1984, when I was ten, I rooted for John Kerry to win the open Senate seat from Massachusetts, because he gave better speeches than Ray Shamie, his Republican opponent.

For many years, I carried a kind of secret shame about the love I felt for oratory. Next to my friends’ passions, mine seemed so trifling. In high school, college, and graduate school, I had friends who played classical cello, or ran the mile in just over four minutes, or could quote from memory Petrarch’s sonnets for Laura. As a hack actor inhigh school, I would watch from the wings as my more gifted classmates made real art onstage; during our run of Guys and Dolls in eleventh grade, I listened every night as Adam Donshik sang “More I Cannot Wish You,” and I thought that I would trade anything for a voice like his. Singing was beautiful and glamorous; public speaking was not. It was 1991, the elder George Bush was president, and his speeches were less memorable than Dana Carvey’s lampoons ofthem. Who, I wondered, gave speeches anymore—the real kind, the kind that people applauded without realizing they had jumped to their feet?

Well, I tried to, about every other Sunday when school was in session. Competitive speaking was the most vital thing in my life, in that era before wife, children, dog, mortgage. I never debate now, and I hardly ever give speeches. When I do it’s to talk about some book I’ve written; my spoken words are entirely in service to my written words, and there are no trophies anywhere (I donated them all to my high school, where they sit in a cardboard box in Mr. Robison’s office, waiting for the trophy case that the school promised the team years ago). There are no extant videotapes of what I did, no YouTube clips, nothing that could ever show up on Hulu. But there are memories, lots of them, of speeches given on wintry days in cold classrooms in brick buildings in small New England towns. And of traveling the world, meeting teenagers from other lands, getting drunk, almost getting laid.

In debate I also made friends I haven’t seen since but whom I truly miss. I would love to ask them why they started debating. For some it may have been a chance to get away from their boarding schools on weekends; others, I’m sure, were interested mainly in their college applications. But many of them were like me: Words were my thing. Talking was what I did. I had no choice. Debate was my first experience of the power of art, and it turned what otherwise would have been a bearable, often lonely, largely forgettable adolescence into a thrilling time.

Excerpted from Wisenheimer: A childhood subject to debate/ Mark Oppenheimer. Copyright © 2010 by Mark Oppenheimer. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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