Thursday, December 13, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 43 - Debating & Writing II

I looked around the big meeting room in Livermore Hall - f
olding chairs lined up with leather sofas - and realized more than half of this small boarding school’s students, maybe 50 boys and also eight faculty members, were here. Such a crowd, it seemed, that I might have been speaking in a coliseum. And for all I knew they were as bloodthirsty as crowds at the ancient world's deadly Roman games.

I knew this room well for this was where we assembled to hear outside speakers – some of them silly, like a burly man who was to give an anti-Communism talk but wound up doing card tricks – and some were deadly serious, like the a tall, thin Quaker who knew what was what in China, including that Mao was popular and would win and Chiang Kai-shek was a discredited warlord that Harry Truman should not be supporting. But now I myself was about to speak here, leading off for the affirmative side on whether our government should provide free health care and higher education. I was 15. My voice had not finished changing. A year earlier I had been considered the dumbest kid in the school and was treated that way by everyone except a key teacher – we called them masters – and two guys who had become my friends in spite of how I had been so slow and unpopular. “Speedy.”

But by the time I was poised to speak in Livermore I had,suddenly, and mysteriously, risen right to the top of my class. I had just made the varsity debate team though I was two years younger than even the brightest varsity debaters in other years.

The room was so familiar. Not just for speakers but also as the place the whole school gathered after dinner every night to sing a hymn and hear a prayer. On the walls were murals showing this rolling-hill part of New Hampshire in autumn colors with figures of the future thrown in – a streamlined train and an airplane with four propellers and nautical-style portholes.

Often that year and the next two years I would be standing in this room surrounded by these gentle murals, building up my case, demolishing my opponents, all the while practicing careful eye contact, my oratory soaring to the point where at moments it was as if I could own the room. That’s how it felt. My words covering over the hymns and prayers that had been here – this meeting room across a hall from a smaller meeting room where mail was handed out in the morning – where now I would almost always find a scented letter in a pastel envelope from Sandie, who like me was 15, an hour away in our sister school, St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains – the envelope’s stamp, as on my letters to her, upside down to show the writer was so distracted by love it was not possible to get things right side up – and on the back of the envelope in capital letters, S.W.A.K., which according to custom stood for “Sealed With A Kiss” – something far beyond anything I had thought could happen to me - for less than a year ago I had been the slowest, most unpopular boy in this school, ridiculed with that nickname “Speedy” – me the slow and bad twin, in the same class here with Peter, the smart, good twin – and by some miracle I had drawn even, and in some but not all crucial ways I had passed him. At one moment I’d been flunking my courses, the next I’d shot to the top of the class just as I became a member of this varsity debate team.

And a girlfriend! And I was finally seen as bright. Not popular yet, still often ostracized,but not totally despised – and now here I was, on the spot in this familiar room filled with boys and masters lined up on folding chairs – standing before them – and I had to make the opening speech. Could I carry it off with a voice that was still changing, a voice that had recently gone from alto to baritone and might still crack as it headed down to base? And would I be ridiculed and ostracized even further for presuming that I could get away with it?

Right in front of me were the judges. Mrs. Homer, a woman with a pretty monkey face who was the mother of my confident-seeming classmate Bob Homer and also president of the League of Women Voters in the nearby town of Plymouth – she and two other Plymouth League of Women Voters women, these two very gray, were to judge this debate that would begin the moment I opened my mouth – if I could open my mouth.

Behind me at our table was my debate colleague and friend Ken Kaplan, who was a sixth former, the equivalent of senior, while I was just a fourth former. And at the other table behind me was the Portland, Maine team – Lois and Michael – who last year had carried back to Portland some major debating trophies. These two - the legendary Lois, a beautiful, stately colored girl, though you forgot that fast, and sturdy Michael - the New England debating champions, coached by a craggy man named Mr. Walsh who produced a handbook on each year’s national subject that went out to debaters all over America. The strongest team in New England, and their famous coach too, right here in this room where I was in front of this crowd at this school of mine where I still might be an outcast.

Me – a fourth former – Speedy – lucky to be where I was, lucky to have a girlfriend who necked on those rare occasions we got up to her school or they got down to ours – it all being almost as if I were one of the popular guys. And now my life hinged on this moment in this familiar room with the fall foliage murals where, my mouth dry, I did begin to speak even while remembering that I was the slow, dumb, shy guy who would not know what to say.

Very early on the morning after my victory – we’d won and the League of Women Voters women had named me Best Speaker – I and all the school debaters on all levels were off in a school van with our coach to a practice tournament at a southern New Hampshire high school. No one was calling me Speedy today. They seemed to have dropped the word. Finally!

Peter, who was always prompt, was already in the van when I climbed in. He gave me a long look and said something about a swelled head. He shook his own head, and through a sour smile he said, “Hi Speedy.”

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