By Will Foster ’20
Payton debaters Alex Sherman ‘17 and Micah Weese ‘18 begin competition in the Tournament of Champions Saturday, culminating what has been a banner year for the duo.
Held at the University of Kentucky, the annual tournament, which will conclude Monday, brings together 80 of the nation’s best debate pairings. Sherman and Weese have never competed in it before, but Sherman projected confidence. “We feel like we will be ready to do well,” he said.
The duo recently won the Chicago Debate League championship, and they are ranked 20th in the nation in the National Speech and Debate Association’s Baker Standings. Teams with two bids to the Tournament of Champions (TOC) automatically qualify. Sherman and Weese got five.
Neither of them had gotten any bids to the TOC before this year, in which they have been partners at every national tournament they’ve attended. “I was super mediocre at debate,” said Sherman. Each truly had to put in the hours to get to the next level. Preparation commenced before the school year had even begun, at debate camp. “Debate camp is a seven-week summer experience where you intensely research in overly air-conditioned University of Michigan libraries with a cohort of fellow dorks in order to prepare for the upcoming season,” as Weese described it. Then, during the school year, they attended tournaments around two times a month, each lasting from Friday to Sunday. And Weese said they prepare for seven to eight hours before each tournament.
Weese was introduced to debate in middle school, competing for Lincoln Elementary in the Chicago Middle School Debate League. But he only got truly serious about it last school year, in his sophomore year at Payton. That’s when he started attending national tournaments and doing extensive research outside of school. He was rewarded when he reached the quarterfinals of the National Urban Debate League championship that year.
“My favorite part of the debates I engage in are the cross-examinations where you can directly question the other team,” he said. “These speeches allow you to discredit and verbally trap your opponents by leading them on deceptive lines of questioning. As an argumentatively confrontational person, I relish the chance I get in these speeches to debate in a more informal and dynamic way.”
Weese does not know whether he will continue debate at whatever college he ends up attending. “My ideal career would be a professor of philosophy so I can get paid to discuss and research the abstract metaphysical concepts that I already spend an inordinate amount of my free time thinking and reading about,” he said. “Debate has definitely influenced this preference by instilling me with a curiosity about the way we think and live and, for better or for worse, conditioning me to prefer writing, thinking, and talking to taking material actions in the real world.”
Sherman, a senior, has been accepted to New York University, and plans to continue debating there. He hopes to major in philosophy and, like Weese, become a professor in the field one day. He began debate in sixth grade. “I vigorously enjoy the competitive nature of debate,” Sherman said. “Issuing my opponents a resounding defeat makes me feel very happy.” However, “I also enjoy a lot of the community aspects of debate,” he said. “Some of my closest friends are people who I never would have met if not for debate.”
One of the most incredible aspects of debate is how fast debaters can read their information. The strict time limits necessitate this technique, known as spreading. “Teams gradually spoke faster and faster until a form of debate developed where the average person can’t mentally process the volume of words presented,” Weese said. “Debaters have to train their ears and minds to understand this kind of speech.” He can speak around 225 words per minute, but said that’s fairly slow in comparison to a lot of the other top teams, many of which average 250 words per minute. Sherman is a little slower than Weese, averaging around 180 to 200 words per minute.
This weekend, all their hard work comes to a head in one final tournament, one that draws the very best from coast to coast. According to Weese, schools known to send a relatively high amount of teams to the TOC are Montgomery Bell Academy from Tennessee, Glenbrook North from the Chicago suburbs, Peninsula from California, Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy from Texas, Carrolton School of the Sacred Heart from Florida, and Westminster from Georgia.
Let the debate begin.
Photos courtesy of Micah Weese