They don’t know these kids from Colorado Springs, Colo., dark-suited and tiger-eyed behind their laptops.
But Karl and Henry Walter, brothers from Shawnee Mission East High School, can assume this much: The Colorado team is good.
Just like the Walters, in their pressed shirts and ties, are good. Both teams wait on the judges’ “go” sign to uncork the verbal equivalent of wild hockey players slashing at the opening puck drop.
They know they’re good because this is the national tournament. More than 3,300 of America’s best high school debaters, speakers and oratorical performers are in Overland Park this week for the National Speech and Debate Tournament.
By Thursday afternoon and Friday, the final competitors from among the thousands will be performing in the auditorium spaces of the Overland Park Convention Center, in rooms built for crowds. The whole gamut ends there for policy, public forum and Lincoln-Douglas debate and the speech events of original oratory, interpretation and extemporaneous speaking.
But right now this is round one. The week’s action fires away with contests sorted one after the other into high school classrooms throughout the city.
The familiarity of debating close-to-home rivals is gone. Now each team is finding out what the other’s got.
What? The brothers eye each other and whisper early in the match. The Colorado team is arguing hard on “A-Spec”?
Debaters across the country know all the arguments and counterarguments in this season’s resolution on Latin American economy issues with such repetition that they’ve been diced into abbreviated lingo.
Agency specification. The Colorado team is arguing that the Walter brothers’ case falters because they don’t specify what government agency would carry out their proposition that the U.S. embargo on Cuba be lifted for the work of scientists.
But hang on. This is the “on-toes thinking” and “keeping it spicy” fury that Karl Walter says he loves.
Back and forth, watching the timers in their hands, racing against the buzzers, the two teams are rattling through arguments involving China, nuclear threat, bioterrorism, biodiversity and trilateral cooperation.
Jousting in cross-examination, then back in turn at the podium, packing arguments as dense noise, spitting evidence in machine gun fire …
Dead silence here.
As if to show that no space goes unused with so many contestants in play, Monday’s round three (category: humorous interpretation) finds Madison Biggs and six competitors in an ISS classroom.
That’s for in-school suspension. And at the moment, it feels like detention.
Seven teenagers and two judges at the back sit in tightly rowed school desks, all facing the front and an open space of old carpeting between them and a sagging bookcase of encyclopedias. Watching the clock.
The only hint of what is about to happen when the hands reach 2 p.m. is that these teenagers are dressed for showtime.
Stand-up comedians they are. And good at it. Acting out humorous literature.
Biggs, a just-graduated senior from Blue Valley High School, had to venture out into “the danger zone,” as she described it, to make herself a performer who would win the district title that put her here as one of the nation’s best.
She was a shy girl, she said, worried about confidence, thinking she would not be able to break through in her high school’s theater auditions. This was her way out there.
All of these students in humorous interpretation, like their colleagues in dramatic interpretation, have to step nakedly in front of their audience, however large or small, without music or props and transform themselves and the air around them.
Here they go. This is no longer ISS.
Multiple characters pop out of each solitary performer — absurd voices, outrageous gags — playing again the solo act each has been perfecting in contests for months.
A woman giving birth twists and quakes with a cross-eyed, lip-curling pterodactyl scream.
A bouncy teen slings back and forth between characterizations of a philandering man, his maid and all three of his girlfriends — American, German and Italian.
Motherhood, Oedipus Rex and Peter Pan all get summarily spoofed.
Biggs, when her turn comes, rises again to simply re-enact the entire history of the world — in less than 10 minutes.
“Thank you,” says a thick-accented, hunchbacked character she created, “for incesting in our show.”
The appalled and annoyed taller character that she instantly becomes issues a hasty correction.
“You mean, ‘investing.’”
Now comes the muttering wall, reached by the circular trail of those of the preoccupied stare.
“It will look like a mental ward,” warned Emma Gunnar days before she and Blue Valley High classmate Paige Waldberg would be joining this peculiar throng filling a high school gymnasium this week.
These are the extemporaneous speakers, in U.S. or foreign affairs, having drawn a current events question they must address in an informed, engaging and well-sourced speech.
They have 30 minutes to pick from the digital mass of articles and reports they compiled over the past many months, organize a speech and rehearse it before they take it alone without any notes in front of judges waiting in classrooms.
This is how you do it. You grab the data points and source information you need from your files, commit them to memory, then shape the sound of your answer — finding a vacant space along the wall, or in step behind the others wandering in the same predicament.
“People walking and talking,” Gunnar says.
Waldberg, who has wanted to be an attorney as long as she can remember, didn’t think she’d have the confidence to compete this way.
Even Gunnar, who made it to last year’s national tournament in Birmingham, Ala., still “freaks” sometimes after she draws that piece of paper with her next speech topic.
But you get into that muttering mode, she says, starting with a brisk and calming, “Snap out of it.”
Is it wise for the Federal Reserve to maintain a large surplus of cash? Waldberg handles that one.
Is a 6 to 7 percent unemployment rate the new normal for the U.S. economy? Gunnar is ready.
They can’t count the number of articles they’ve read and filed. Hundreds for sure. Maybe more than a thousand.
“Panera!” they say when asked how they’d spent time in the last days before the tournament. The restaurant and its Wi-Fi has been a favorite spot for “cutting articles” online together.
They laugh and high-five.
In the afternoon of the second day, they are back in the gymnasium with some 500 extemporaneous speakers in both the U.S. and foreign divisions staring at the balcony.
Giant rolled sheets of paper are about to be unfurled, listing the code numbers of the students who will advance to the elimination rounds.
Gunnar and Waldberg are watching. Ada Throckmorton of Shawnee Mission East is watching.
Just as Biggs watched the same kind of unfurling where her events took place. And the Walter brothers at their school.
Roughly one in four of the 3,300 competitors makes it out of these intense preliminary rounds. It’s a tough crowd.
It will be over for Gunnar, Waldberg, Biggs and Throckmorton. The Walters will continue on.
But this is where they want to be.
“You might think of soccer as a team sport,” Throckmorton said, “but there is no community like debaters and forensics.”
They’re all in this together, watching the numbers fall, seeing who is going on and who isn’t.
So much energy, so many people “so aware of what’s going on in the world,” Throckmorton said.
Awash in confidence. Shaking hands all around. Hugging those dearest to them.
The National Speech and Debate Tournament builds to the finals Thursday and Friday, with a special appearance by author and comedian David Sedaris as well as an attempt for a spot in Guinness World Records. All events are free and open to the public.
The final events in each tournament category will take place at the Overland Park Convention Center, 6000 College Blvd.
Thursday: Humorous interpretation finals begin at 4 p.m., with Sedaris as one of the judges. Sedaris will speak after the finals. The dramatic interpretation finals will follow.
At 8 p.m., tournament participants will attempt to set a Guinness world record for the most people texting the same message simultaneously: “Spark leaders. Support speech and debate.”
The finals for duo teams in interpretation will follow.
Friday: The finals for original oratory, extemporaneous speaking and all debate divisions will occur between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., followed by the awards assembly.