Rock Bridge Debate Team For The Win

The black plastic box holds about 300 sheets of paper: studies, articles, prepared statements. Sara Ashbaugh, a senior at Rock Bridge High School, grips the box’s handle as she enters a classroom and yet another round of public forum debate. Ashbaugh and her debate partner, Whitney Cravens, have been down this road before. Debate partners since sophomore year, the seniors’ dream of qualifying for nationals has yet to be realized.

They’re hoping the dream reaches fruition this time in Pattonville High School, a sprawling, multistory building in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights. This early March Saturday marks the last day of the National Speech & Debate Association district competition in Missouri. The Pattonville tournament offers a direct path to nationals for four pairs or individuals in each event. If Ashbaugh and Cravens win this round, they’ll be among the 3,000 national qualifiers headed for Overland Park, Kan., in June, survivors of a winnowing process that began with 130,000 competitors around the country last fall.

Three adults sit in desks and face the whiteboard. Over the next 40 minutes or so, Ashbaugh and Cravens must convince these judges that their argument is better than their opponents’. The topic: Do classrooms with all boys or all girls improve education in America, or not? The box Ashbaugh carries contains evidence supporting each side. They do not know if they’ll have to make an argument for or against the issue.

The other members of Rock Bridge’s debate team find a few open desks to sit and watch. Some have to sit on the floor or lean against the wall. Cravens and Ashbaugh stand near each other at the front of the room; the top of Cravens’ head comes to just above Ashbaugh’s shoulder. Ashbaugh in blue and Cravens in black, both wear pearls.

The two place their black plastic box on a nearby desk and watch as a flipped coin spins through the air.

Eight months earlier, the Rock Bridge debate team could best be described as in a state of flux. The seniors were on their third coach in three years. Ashbaugh, Cravens and classmate Maaz Muhammed had loved the coach who led them in their sophomore year. She’d left for a full-time position in Fulton, though. Their junior-year coach didn’t have any debate experience. Assistant coach Samantha Kubota, an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, had been tasked with taking the eight-person team to weekend tournaments that year.

When the students learned their new debate coach would be Jennifer Black Cone, a 29-year veteran teacher at Rock Bridge, Ashbaugh and Cravens met with her a week before the school year began. Ashbaugh told Black Cone she wanted Rock Bridge to host a tournament. She also wanted to go to the most competitive tournaments, to match up against the debate powerhouses.

The August start to school found the girls putting up fliers around the halls, inviting students to become involved with the debate team. They held a few meetings and attracted dozens of students. On a Saturday in early October, the Rock Bridge tournament took place. Aaron Malin signed up to be a judge.

Malin had debated at Marquette High School in Chesterfield and qualified for nationals not so many years ago. He graduated from Truman State University in two years, and now at 20 years old, was a month into a graduate political science program. He was looking for a project, an iron in the fire, he’d say.

When Malin met Black Cone, he said, “I want to help.” In the teachers’ lounge that fall Saturday, they worked out how.

“I’m an excellent facilitator,” Black Cone told him, “but I don’t have the background in debate you have.”

Malin, they decided, would teach some classroom lessons, but more importantly, he would help the students on the team.

I’ll see you Monday, Malin told her.

On Monday, the new assistant coach stood at the front of a Rock Bridge classroom and introduced himself to debate students. In the coming days, he would repeat this introduction to the team in this same room. He looked around, noting the Missouri-shaped wooden plaques that line the walls above two white boards, commemorating the school’s state qualifiers in debate. This Rock Bridge debate room was very different from the high school debate room where Malin had spent his days at Marquette. There, covers of The Economist blanketed a wall. Jargon that would confuse anyone not immersed in the debate world covered the white boards. Another wall displayed a collection of hotel key cards, souvenirs of tournament road trips.

Malin knew debate, breathed it. That’s why Black Cone had brought him into her class. Although she had some debate experience as a Hickman High School student, she knew the students on the debate team needed a mentor who could wade through the minutiae with them, someone who could take them further than they had ever gone. And Malin had gone far — at the national tournament in Dallas his senior year, Malin had finished 17th out of more than 200.

About a month into Malin’s tenure, Black Cone emailed parents, explaining how Malin had started with the team to fill the gaps in Black Cone’s debate knowledge. Now, Black Cone’s email declared, Malin would be the authority on competitions.

He certified with the Columbia school district so he could travel with students on the bus. En route to tournaments, he listened as students read through their cases. The months passed by, and Ashbaugh and Cravens got their wish: during the season, they competed against teams they’d see again in March.

Three weeks before national districts, Malin, who turned 21 in February, began teaching policy debate to several students so Rock Bridge could field teams in policy competition. Considered the most complicated type of debate, policy focuses on legislative solutions to issues. Malin and the students spent long days practicing, arriving at school around 7 a.m., just as the janitors were putting new bags in the trashcans.

A week before districts, the team met at Rock Bridge to practice. Ashbaugh and Cravens went round after round to simulate a real tournament, switching sides each time.

Boys and girls should be separated. Here’s why.

No, they shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Of the 11 Rock Bridge teams competing at districts, Malin knew Ashbaugh and Cravens had the best chance of qualifying for, or “breaking” to, nationals. He also knew it wasn’t a sure thing.

Late-morning sun streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows opposite Pattonville’s debate room door. Aaron Malin is dressed in khakis and a button-down, his thick dark eyebrows and half-open frame glasses border his eyes. Malin is on a mission this tournament Friday. He qualified for nationals as a high school senior in this very school. He remembers the Pattonville debate room as the state’s best. Accompanied by two sophomores, he has rooted it out.

“I can have seven rounds going on at once because of the space,” the Pattonville coach tells Malin. The visitors notice the room’s printer. At Rock Bridge, they share one with the rest of the school. The sophomores look around.

“Impressive,” one says.

“I’m bringing you here so you can tell your teammates about the Promised Land,” Malin says.

Malin knows some of the best debate programs in the state are in St. Louis. The other traditional powerhouses are Kansas City and Springfield. Teams from these cities debate each other all the time, and the sparring incubates better debaters.

The students head downstairs to Pattonville’s spacious, green-and-white cafeteria. The team has set up camp next to a pillar with an electrical outlet, their backpacks and coats strewn across several round tabletops. The day’s first debate round is an hour and a half away. Cravens kills time by playing cards with the team’s underclassmen.

Ashbaugh’s day began early — she arrived at Pattonville before 8 a.m. for an individual speech event called Extemporaneous Speaking, “extemp” in debaters’ lingo. Speakers have 30 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech; the topic changes each round and could include the Keystone XL Pipeline or foreign policy in the Middle East. Tournaments consist of alternating speech and debate events so students can compete in both. Ashbaugh yo-yos between events all day, with few breaks. While the others await the next debate round, Ashbaugh takes off for another round of extemp.

As the time nears for the debate round, the energy in the cafeteria picks up. Ashbaugh joins Cravens, and they head out. They win their third-round competition. Going into the fourth round, the two seniors are undefeated. They enter the third-floor room as six of their teammates filter in to watch.

The pair groups four desks together to form a makeshift table for the evidence in their black plastic box. Ashbaugh writes their names and their team code, 2250, on the board. The judges copy it onto their ballots. The Rock Bridge pair has debated the con side — all-boy and all-girl classrooms do not improve education — in the three previous rounds. The coin flip is good to them — con side again.

When debating, Cravens’ willowy frame remains rigid as she commands the lectern, letting loose her voice. In contrast, Ashbaugh’s relaxed smile tightens into stern determination, reminiscent of a batter before the pitch. It is her game face.

A former assistant coach describes the duo as “hot and cold,” an assessment of their dispositions — passionate Whitney, analytical Sara. Both are driven.

Cravens takes her prepared con speech out of the black plastic box, steps to the front of the room and belts out her argument. A desk serves as a lectern. Each part of a debate has a set time limit; Cravens uses a school-issued iPad mini to time herself. Their opponents, two girls from LaDue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis, take the pro side. One gives the team’s pro speech. She argues that biological differences between girls and boys merit separate classrooms. Ashbaugh scribbles notes on a yellow legal pad using two different-colored pens, a debate technique known as flowing.

Next, Cravens and her opponent stand shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes toward the judges. Cross-examination, where debaters alternate asking questions, can get heated. Debate is like any competition; it gets emotional, maybe even more so because debaters are using their own ideas, and that makes it personal.

The first cross-examination ends. The format repeats, with Ashbaugh up. As she does during extemporaneous speech competitions, Ashbaugh moves her hand in a cadence to emphasize points. The speeches are batting practice for her. She asserts that very little difference exists between the development of girls’ and boys’ brains, a main argument of the pro side, so kids shouldn’t be shunted into all-girl and all-boy classrooms.

After the second cross-examination, Cravens summarizes their argument. The pro side’s first speaker does the same. The four debaters then remain seated for “grand cross” — a four-person cross-examination.

Ashbaugh goes after their opponents’ use of a supposed expert on single-gender classrooms. He’s unreliable, she says, so why are you citing his study? The debaters speak over one another. After grand cross, Ashbaugh gives her team’s last speech, followed by the Ladue girls’ last speech. Outside, the sun is setting.

The judge sitting farthest from the door has been taking notes on his computer. He asks to see a piece of evidence the Rock Bridge seniors used in their arguments, a meta-analysis of many studies from around the world. The evidence seems to prove single-gender classrooms don’t work. The problem? The language is vague. It doesn’t specifically say how many studies were conducted in the United States, and this is a debate about American schools.

He grills Ashbaugh and Cravens while the other two judges watch. Where does it say how many studies it analyzed were performed in America? The judge’s question intimates the girls have based their arguments on bad evidence. They flip through the stapled printout but cannot produce an answer to satisfy him.

Cravens streaks out of the room. Ashbaugh collects the evidence in the black plastic box and walks out.

“A judge can’t do that,” Ashbaugh tells Cravens. “A judge can’t attack our evidence.”

The other Rock Bridge students gather around. The group traipses down the long hallway, back to the cafeteria. It feels like a funeral procession.

“If our opponents want to attack our evidence,” Ashbaugh continues, “go right ahead. But a judge can’t.”

A sophomore tries to lighten things.

“Anybody seen any movies lately?”

The others shush him. A freshman gives Cravens a one-armed hug.

Judgment Call
When they hear what happened, Malin and fellow assistant coach Whitney Smith, an MU law school student, get tournament officials involved.

“A judge dressed down a piece of evidence,” Malin tells officials upstairs, in the room where each round’s result is tabulated. Tournament officials decide to suss out whether the judge’s display influenced the other two. Malin and Smith walk to the cafeteria, where Malin tells Cravens, “The tournament thinks it’s sketchy as hell.”

Ashbaugh leaves for another round of extemporaneous speaking. Cravens sits in the cafeteria, her arms crossed. About 30 feet behind her, the prosecutorial judge from the last round — an assistant coach for another debate team — joins a group of debaters. He raises both arms and proclaims he has just judged a round where a team fabricated evidence.

Smith comforts Cravens. “I’ve talked to the tournament officials,” she says, “and I’m supposed to tell you that you did nothing wrong.” She adds they might have to redo the round. When Ashbaugh returns, Cravens fills her in.

“I don’t want to do a round again,” Ashbaugh says. “How would we even do that? It’d be so weird to do another round; the opponents know all of our evidence now.” She sits with a thousand-yard stare. Muhammad, the other senior debater, rubs her shoulders.

“This is so frustrating,” Cravens declares. “We just so solidly won that round.”

Close to 8 p.m., Friday’s last round is looming. Malin enters the cafeteria and motions for the seniors to join him in a corner by a row of vending machines. Leaning on the wall, he tells them both teams were awarded a win, or an “up.” Ashbaugh and Cravens are now 4-0.

At the tables, Muhammad hugs Cravens. Malin helps Ashbaugh with their meta-analysis, using a black marker to underline what he thinks is a good rebuttal to an argument against its validity. The world outside is dark now.

Two public forum teams from Rock Bridge are still contenders in the competition. The seniors grab their black plastic box and walked toward their next debate.

“Let’s put that last one out of our heads,” Ashbaugh says.

“Right,” Cravens replies.

End Game
As sunlight breaks over Pattonville the next morning, only Ashbaugh and Cravens remain in contention from Rock Bridge. Muhammad and his partner lost in the last Friday night round, their second “down” in the two-strikes-and-you’re-out tournament. Ashbaugh still has a chance to win extemp, although she cares more about public forum debate. The two seniors finally taste defeat in Saturday’s first round when they receive their first “down.” At 5-1, Rock Bridge has been in the winners’ bracket the longest, netting the pair a bye for the 2 p.m. round.

A dozen Rock Bridge team members remain in the cafeteria; almost half the team returned to Columbia on Friday. Malin heads to the bus for a nap. At the tables, Ashbaugh spoons applesauce, and then orders up a Jimmy Johns delivery. She puts her head on the table, using a black, puffy coat for comfort. Cravens stretches out across two chairs.

Another extemp round calls to Ashbaugh, her last. When she gets back to the cafeteria, she tells Black Cone and Smith, “I’m reaching my limit.” She is exhausted.

Five public forum debate teams remain; one is undefeated and has qualified for nationals. The others, each with one down, must compete for three spots. A loser’s bracket will determine the fourth team to break.

Close to 5 p.m., the seniors leave the cafeteria and head to the room for their debate. Malin worries the coin flip won’t fall in their favor. After a weekend of arguing the con side, they’ve gotten used to it. He worries their argument won’t be as strong if they have to switch sides and extol the merits of all-boy and all-girl classrooms. In the room, Ashbaugh writes their names and team code, 2250, on the board. Malin positions himself in the hallway outside, listening through the closed door.

The seniors await the coin flip.

They draw con again. Ashbaugh and Cravens attack their opponents’ use of the supposed expert. If they are exhausted, they don’t show it. Their opponents counter by questioning the validity of the meta-analysis. Listening from the hallway, Malin thinks the opponents’ last speech sounds defensive. After the debate, the team walks back to the cafeteria and loiters by the tables.

“I just hope we won,” Ashbaugh says, “because it’s just so stressful.”

The girls see their opponents move toward the concession stand, where each round’s results had been posted. They follow.

Taped on the wall is a white piece of paper. Written in blue marker are the codes of the teams who must to debate again: “1968 vs. 2250 Please report to the room ASAP!”

Muhammad puts one arm around each girl. They try not to cry as they walk back to the tables for their black plastic box. Steeling herself, Cravens breathes deeply. Ashbaugh sits down.

They take a few steps away from the tables, toward the room, but a tournament official stops them. Wait, he says. He has an announcement, but he wants a coach there to hear.

What’s happening? The team wonders.

“It’s just to tell us we need to debate again,” Ashbaugh says with resignation.

Assistant coaches Malin and Smith walk into the cafeteria. The official takes Malin aside. Then, Malin relays the message to the team: the wrong team code was posted.

They’d won the round. Ashbaugh and Cravens scream in excitement. Their eyes well with tears. Ashbaugh, wrapping her arms around her partner, sinks her head in Cravens’ right shoulder. Cravens smiles as her arms encircle Ashbaugh.

The team draws together for a group hug.

After, Malin stands alone, his hand on his chin, glasses in his fingers. With his thumb, he wipes away tears and sniffles as thoughts calmly run through his mind.

This makes it OK I don’t get paid for this. They put in so much hard work.

The Rock Bridge team decides to go get some dinner before the awards ceremony. In the school parking lot, Muhammad sits between the national qualifiers in the car’s back seat. Ashbaugh’s hand rests in her lap. Cravens reaches over Muhammad to enfold it in her own. She squeezes it, and the girls look into each other’s eyes.

“We qualified.”

Skill Set
Debaters practically have “Going Places” stamped on their foreheads. Columbia’s high schools field teams. Others in the surrounding area do, too. Rock Bridge has a debate class, and it has a debate team — the students who go to tournaments.

Debating, which requires students to formulate arguments and articulate them effectively, can boost confidence. Students learn skills that are useful in other classes — and in life. The activity improves thinking, processing, expression, listening, and organizational and communication skills.

During Sara Ashbaugh and Whitney Cravens’ sophomore and junior years, Samantha Kubota, then an MU undergraduate, served as an assistant coach. A friend called her recently to report on a work presentation where people had congratulated her on her speaking ability.

“I knew we did speech and debate for a reason,” the friend told Kubota.

When recruiting debaters, Rock Bridge assistant coach Aaron Malin likes to tell students how many Supreme Court justices and presidents competed in debate. A 1978 study revealed that 55 percent of all members of Congress had participated in high school debate.

On To Nationals
Sara Ashbaugh and Whitney Cravens will wrap up their high school debate careers at the National Speech & Debate Tournament June 15–20 in Overland Park, Kan. Ashbaugh and Cravens qualified for the national competition in public forum debate last March. Preliminary public forum debate rounds will take place at Overland Trail Middle School and Overland Trail Elementary School; elimination rounds move to Blue Valley West High School. Finals take place Friday, June 20, at the Overland Park Convention Center.