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Why Speech and Debate Matter

By David Eacho, VI Form and Jane Cho Watts, IV Form

Why does the United States Constitution’s First Amendment grant us the right to free speech if we don’t know how to use it? Up until the 1970s, St. Mark’s had mandatory Public Speaking class for IVth formers and form-wide debates and speech competitions across the entire school. Since then, oratory has been limited to a Third Form Seminar event. The quality of presentations across the school has deteriorated to the point where school meeting announcements cause dread among the student body. It’s time for all that to change.St. Marks’ Speech and Debate Club, created and run by students, is the first step to that change. The club’s objectives for this year are twofold: compete against other schools outside of St. Mark’s and bring competition within the school itself.

Outside of school, we are a part of an interscholastic debate league called DANEIS, or the Debating Association of New England Independent Schools. We plan to go to 2-3 competitions during the remainder of the year. As for inside of our school, in the spring, we plan to organize speech and debate competitions open to all St. Markers to compete in, with prizes going to the winner.

On Speech – David Eacho

I love to talk. When I was younger I talked too much, interrupting my brothers at dinner conversations, thinking I wouldn’t have a turn otherwise. By high school I learned to be more patient, but I still looked for opportunities to speak.

Over the next year and a half, I began preparing for events in three different countries, speaking about subjects ranging from duct tape’s role in the world to the effects of technology on our mental health. The tournaments were frightening. I had never gotten stage fright until I was giving my speeches. In the Oral Interpretation finals, I was so nervous that I had my pages in the wrong order. As I competed further, I learned the benefits of composure and preparation, skills that have extended to my work outside of public speaking.

Travelling to these competitions I met friends I would keep in touch with for the following years and listened to the issues that mattered to them. From the image of women in the American media to the permission of Egyptian media, people from all over the world came to tell their stories. I am reminded of the speeches that have made historical impact in similar ways. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Ronald Reagan’s address to Mikhail Gorbachev, freeing West Berlin, both show how vital public speaking has been to the expression of people’s opinions.

When I left Vienna to go to St. Mark’s, I wanted to continue developing my skills as an orator, however I soon found out that there was no team at the New England boarding school. I was quite taken aback and began to research the situation. I researched local leagues, talked to teachers, and emailed friends in other boarding schools. In my second year at St. Mark’s, I teamed up with another student to resume the debate team, something that hadn’t been around since the 1970s. I may never have to argue the importance of duct tape again, but the lessons in leadership and critical thinking I learned through speech and debate made it my most critical extracurricular activity.

On Debate – Jane Cho Watts

Competitive debate isn’t the unorganized “discussions” that people, even some St. Markers, regularly have over the dinner table. The competition resembles more of a court, where each side calmly presents its points, and competitors are expected to be as calculating as lawyers in a court case.

I started learning speech and debate in 6th grade, taking a speech class at a local academy near my house. As a shy, reserved girl who had just moved back from Korea, I was not the most likely candidate for success at the academy; I often became nervous to even talk to the waiter at a restaurant. Because I didn’t like speech at first, I quit the sport after three short months. However, a year later, I reluctantly started to take debate classes. Surprisingly, I loved it. The power that debate gave me when I was up on the podium, combined with the thrill of speaking to so many people, was weirdly appealing to me, the meek girl that had lived most of her life listening to what others told her to do.

I soon advanced on to harder debate classes and started to compete in local competitions. I was surprised to discover talents that I didn’t know I had, passionately pulling all-nighters trying to win each competition. Although it was a two-person sport, my team and coach were extremely supportive. I wasn’t an excellent debater, but I loved it and worked hard to win. Despite my never-ending love for debate, my results in the competitions weren’t that impressive. The reality was that our team wasn’t as big or strong as other academies that had been around for longer. Accepting that as a challenge, I decided to go compete in the middle school National tournament for debate, representing our small team and even missing middle graduation to participate in it. Preparation was both difficult and enjoyable. We spent hours meeting up to prepare, sometimes even without our coach. We even had giant research sleepovers. Finally, our team, with a group of nine students barely 13, landed in Indianapolis, with one adult to supervise us.

We did fairly well as a team, nothing legendary, but nothing horrid as well. Regardless of the results, the bonds that we made during the trip were enduring. Ending my middle school career on a high note in my summer after 8th grade, I entered high school debate. At St. Mark’s, I immediately attempted to start a debate team, but couldn’t find enough interest. This year, the club is doing well, and I’m proud of our improvement over last year. Although I’m not completely satisfied with our competitions, I’m confident that our situation will only improve. In my academy back home, I am one of the many high schoolers coming back from all over the nation to help the middle school team out.

Ultimately, comparing myself before and after starting debate, I have gained so much: a new passion, countless connections and friends, and a new personality. I’m no longer the girl afraid to speak to the waiter in restaurant; I’m the girl speaking up in class and volunteering to present. Speech and debate has given me valuable academic and life tools.

Speech and Debate usually meets every available club block, but sometimes (if needed) has after school meetings as well. In a typical meeting, the speech members and the debaters split up into different rooms. David teaches speech and Jane teaches debate, and they each work on the appropriate step the groups are in, regarding preparation for competition.

David Walker Eacho is a VI Former from Bethesda, MD who lives in Maple. In addition to speech and debate, David enjoys acting, building robots, and fretting about college applications.

Jane Cho Watts is a IV Former from Santa Monica, CA who lives in Thieriot. She is very passionate about debate and singing, and she also plays tennis. She is also interested in math and science, but enjoys learning in all of her subjects.

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