This article was submitted by an Alumni Debater (not pictured)
Debate was my high school sport. I participated in a high school homeschool Speech and Debate League, which values real-world skills over technical debate training, I developed the art of rhetoric, composition, and professional conduct. Yet the most important lesson I learned during that time was a lesson I learned from my brother.
Senior year brought its own full set of challenges related to school, Speech and Debate and college preparation. As summer bled into autumn, college application deadlines descended like an invading army (I ended up applying to twenty-two schools before all was said and done). In addition to that, my responsibilities in my local Speech and Debate Club only intensified. For my last season, I was selected to serve as the evidence captain, a role that functions as the leader of the Team Policy debate section, making me responsible for organizing thirty researchers on a weekly basis.
Then there was my partnership with my younger brother, *Sam. Sam was two years younger than and two grades below me, and as one could imagine, placed himself under immense pressure to perform. I already had a reputation in our region against which he would be judged, but because it was my last year in the league, Sam considered himself personally responsible for my success. As I would only come to realize later, Sam was primarily motived by the obligation he felt to support me.
At the time, however, I took Sam for granted. As the season dragged on, I let the other demands on my time—from my college applications to my AP classes, to my duties as evidence captain—come before my partnership with Sam. I let the lion’s share of the work fall on him and made excuses for my lack of effort. It is not that I consciously considered Sam a resource to exploit; the problem was that I didn’t consider Sam at all. Still, he continually poured himself into his work, determined not to let me fail even as I paved the road to my own downfall.
As the tournaments began, my only concern was college applications, with major deadlines falling between December 1 and January 1. As one of the first tournaments of the season steadily approached, a National Open Tournament that offered a prequalification to Nationals. Over the holiday season, I obsessed over essays while Sam prepared for debate by himself. A few weeks before the tournament, he noticed a change in US foreign policy, and seized upon it. He furiously compiled arguments, and constructed cases that had several strong strategic advantages. Even as I could see his diligence in writing the case, and more broadly his dedication to our partnership, I was skeptical. Even then I held on to the idea that I was a capable enough debater and didn’t need my younger brother to bail me out. It was not until the days before the tournament that I acknowledged my need for his help and agreed to run the case that Sam had spent weeks researching and developing.
The tournament opened as all tournaments did. I felt the same mix of nerves, ambition, and stress as everyone else, but also a wistful realization that this tournament was the beginning of the end for me. Yet as the tournament progressed, I found each round to be an encouragement. Sam’s debate skills had developed substantially from the last season, and his case performed remarkably well. Sam opened each round with strong passion and a deep knowledge of the subject. His research paid off as cross-examiners probed for gaps in his knowledge only to break open geysers of responses and counterarguments that Sam had prepared. By the time it was my turn to speak, Sam had laid such a comprehensive foundation my job was mainly to point back to the arguments he had already made.
We rushed through the preliminary rounds in a sort of blur. In a blink it came time for elimination rounds. The competitors filed into the large auditorium to hear the announcements, the nerves of the students feeding into the tension like a guitar string winding tighter and tighter. Over the course of the “break” announcements, the name of each advancing team was read aloud one by one. Each time the director read a name that wasn’t yours, the string was wound another crank, growing closer and closer to the breaking point every second.
And then the tension broke. Our name was announced. Sam and I had advanced, and we placed high enough to earn ourselves a bye round. We relaxed while the first rounds took place and breathed a sigh of relief when our matchup was eventually announced: we would be debating novices. I entered into that round feeling proud of my brother and confident that we would be debate again in the morning.
But things went wrong. We were more experienced than our opponents. That was the problem. Our opponents used such vague and argumentation that we found it difficult to communicate our position to the judges. It was as frustrating as grabbing at a wet bar of soap only to watch it slip from your fingers and skid across the counter. As the round ended, both Sam and I were in shock. I felt sure that our tournament had come to an abrupt end, and in such a disappointing manner. Sam took it hard on himself that evening, but I couldn’t ignore my own part in the failure as well. As the most experienced debater in the room, I should have been able to stand above the confusion and establish a sense of clarity with the judges. It was ultimately my fault for letting things become so convoluted, for getting lost in the weeds instead of taking a high-level approach. And of course, if I had actually helped with our preparation, perhaps we could have thought it all through ahead of time. But I hadn’t, and I was sure that I would now face a reckoning for it.
Yet Sam and I were given a second chance. The next morning, our name was announced, and we were to debate in quarterfinals, we were instilled with a new sense of resolve; we had tasted of defeat once and decided that we would not so easily drink from that cup again. We debated quarterfinals with everything we had and were successful. But semifinals through us a curveball: we faced a team from our own club. The round was solid and well argued, but so close that I couldn’t tell which way the panel would swing.
Suspense hung over the auditorium as we waited for the director to announce the Finals pairings. The nerves were almost unbearable. I knew the feeling well; I had stood at this exact point so many times in my career only to fall short. Now, I prepared myself for the inevitable—indeed the statistically probable—outcome, but in truth there really was no way to prepare. Sam and I sat side by side, the tension sending his leg bouncing uncontrollably while it froze my hands to the armrest.
“The Finals Team Policy round: *Andrews/Smith—” A crack rang out through the auditorium. The “Forensics Clap,” it was called; the entire audience clapping in unison, once after each name. It was the pulse of the tournament, the drum to which everything else marched. A thundering silence followed as the director paused. “—versus Miller/Miller.” Then the CLAP gave way to thundering applause.
We had broken to finals, but that was just the next step. It was determined by the flip of a coin that Sam and I would debate as the affirmative, giving us the strategic high ground. We would need every advantage we could get against a qualified opponent. As the first affirmative speaker, Sam opened the round. For a moment, I felt a wave of panic that sent my gut plummeting. Sam had never been in round as significant as this, nor had faced an audience as large. I worried that his inexperience would show, and that the ordeal would end in embarrassment.
But if he was nervous, he concealed it well. His delivery was strong, and conveyed confidence. I heard him noticeably lowering his voice as he calmed his nerves and worked speak at a measured pace, making him sound older, more mature, and more credible. He knew the subject better than anyone in the room, and he spoke on matter with passion and conviction.
I looked over to the podium and saw a brother who was calm, collected, and confident; a mature debater who had learned from my example but had mastered the art and made it his own. I had regretted not giving Sam my due attention during the preseason, but I resolved in that moment to give him the last thing I had left to give: my skill. My final speech was a hybrid of Sam’s ideas and my words coming together to combine the best of our strengths. I tied together the facts and the stories with the overall theme of the case and finished the round with a resounding conclusion.
I felt a tidal wave of relief sweep over me as soon as the round was finished. The judges had barely left the room before Sam and I hugged each other. We both recognized that I had mistreated him. We both understood that one speech in one round wouldn’t be enough to pay him back the debt I owed. He knew it, but he did not hold it against me. In a single moment, all was made right between us.
We waited through the awards ceremony to learn who won. The director read through the list of placings, but the only one the audience listened for was second-place. “In second place for Team Policy Debate…”
A name was called. It wasn’t ours. The entire crowd erupted, and instantly we knew that we had won the finals. We were the tournament champions, and we had earned a spot at Nationals. For Sam, an enormous weight was lifted. He had spent months doubting himself, but as it turned out, he and his effort carried us to victory. On the drive home, our minivan was overflowing with shock, awe, and relief as we processed together just what this tournament meant. I realized that I no longer saw him as a “younger” brother, but simply as a brother—a peer. He had proven his abilities and he had proven his character, but most importantly he demonstrated what it meant to love someone like a brother. Despite how the preseason had gone, we were partners now, and we were brothers.
That tournament was the high point for Sam and me, and from that point forward our success began to wane. Our silver bullet of a case died soon after that first tournament. In fact, even as the finals round was taking place, news broke that the US federal government was softening on its initial stance. Within weeks, they reverted back to the original status quo. This did mean that we were ultimately correct in our policy analysis, but it also meant that we no longer had a case to run.
But to be completely honest, our own debate skills atrophied as well. The pressure to compete at Nationals keeps most teams sharp over the whole season. Because that pressure was lifted from us, we grew slack, weakened like the muscles of an astronaut exposed to microgravity for extended lengths of time. Sam had met his goal and was ready to move on. I wasn’t offended by that. In fact, I took the opportunity to compete in the value debate format, something I had never tried before. The policy debater in me learned a great deal from that brief stint as a value debater, and I feel that my experience as a competitor in the league was more fully rounded out. Still, it was an implicit and mutual acknowledgement that Sam and I weren’t pressuring ourselves after prequalifying.
At Nationals, my last tournament with Sam and my last in the league, we ended with an even 3–3 record. A record of 4–2 or better is required to advance to elimination rounds. My personal career success stretched only slightly farther: during the closing ceremonies I was recognized with a speaker award.
The following season, Sam elected not to compete in Team Policy at all, opting instead for Lincoln Douglass value debate, a style generally considered to be more relaxed from a TP debater’s perspective. I have come to realize that Sam’s primary motivation has never been about the competition itself. As a novice, he hated the thought of debating. Even as he developed into a competent debater, it wasn’t something he loved to do. I now believe that he stayed in the league mainly because of me. He wanted only to emulate me, to spend time with me, and, for my last season, to support me. That is what makes all of his sacrifices even more meaningful to me.
And about all of those college applications: it turns out I didn’t need them. I did not attend a single one of those schools. In hindsight, I could have done senior year completely differently and avoided the entire fiasco. All of the trouble that Sam took was unnecessary. And because Sam took the trouble nonetheless, I love him all the more as my brother.
*Alternate names were used for this article. The author submitted the article and wishes to remain anonymous.