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The consummate success of the Oak Park and River Forest High School Debate Team is difficult to describe to the uninitiated. So coach David Gobberdiel puts it in sports terms: "It's the equivalent of a Division III basketball team making the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament."
The analogy isn't that far-fetched. The IHSA approves debate teams the same way it sanctions sports teams. (This state happens to be a hotbed for debate. Six of the top 18 teams in the country are from Illinois — only appropriate for the Land of Lincoln.) In fact, the state championship trophy is just as large and impressive as the one awarded to the top football squad. The OPRF team didn't get to hoist this trophy, but they did make it to the quarter-finals. Not bad, for a four-man team going up against juggernauts like Glenbrook North, which fields a team of 120.
Besides its small size, the OPRF team has another handicap. They're one of the last "paper" debate teams in the U.S. "Everyone else uses laptops," Gobberdiel explained. "We have plastic tubs of paper." These tubs weigh 30 pounds and contain piles of "evidence" to back-up arguments. When the squad flies to a debate site, it pays expensive baggage fees for its research materials.
This past season, the OPRF crew criss-crossed the country, squaring off against the best of the best. Their travels included stops in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee, Georgia and California. They were among 12 teams that competed at the University of California Berkeley. The topic was whether the U.S. should explore and develop outer space.
Debate is research-driven, so the team first filled up those tubs with over 100,000 pages of space-related information. It's like cramming for a doctoral thesis. Plus, the team has to be able to debate both sides of every argument.
Nathan Rothenbaum, who was named 9th best debater nationally, explained that a debate competition consists of six elimination rounds. During three rounds, the team affirms their argument. For example, they can argue that the U.S. should explore space and provide evidence that it leads to the development of new technology like solar-powered satellites. They also spend three rounds negating this thesis. "You have to attack your own argument," Rothenbaum said.
At the Berkeley tournament, they had to elaborate their arguments in front of a panel of aerospace experts. Apart from debating the merits of exploring the final frontier, Rothenbaum and his teammate, Noah Cramer, also presented arguments about whether the country should increase social services and if the U.S. should withdraw from military involvements.
Cramer was named "Most-Improved Debater" of 2012. "I used to be nervous," he confessed, "but now I'm smoother and more relaxed." He credits debate with helping him get into Dartmouth University next fall. "I want to become a teacher," the Eagle Scout said. "I'd also like to be a debate coach."
Gobberdiel is in his fifth year coaching debate at OPRF. He is not on the faculty but runs the whole program. "OPRF hasn't had a faculty coach since the mid-'90s," he explained.
Cramer sees this as another handicap. "Glenbrook North has a full-time coordinator who hires the coaches. It's a big help to have someone you can talk to during the school day."
Valley High School in Iowa, where Gobberdiel debated for four years, had a nationally-renowned program. He not only got the debate bug, but his experience helped him get into the University of Chicago. "Debate participation is seen as a golden ticket to college," he said. "There are studies that show its value in scholastic improvement and college readiness."
Rothenbaum would second that. "Debate really helped my research skills. It makes school a breeze. It makes research papers a breeze. There's also an eloquence aspect and other portable skills. I'm naturally argumentative but debate has made it harder to be resolute. It's made me more open-minded."
Cramer and Rothenbaum might be smooth talkers but there's nothing breezy about a debate tournament. "It's three days of grueling combat," Rothenbaum said. "We wake up at 6 a.m. and don't get back until midnight. We spend hours preparing. We construct more arguments than we can use. There's no time to eat." Rothenbaum has logged 350 hours in debate competition during his four-year career.
Cramer said, "It takes a long time to learn about debate to appreciate it. You need kids with 'blind faith' to stick with it." It's also a long season. He calculated that in their 14 tournaments, they had a record of 86-26 in debate rounds. Cramer also found time to play football and hockey at OPRF, while Rothenbaum was on the swim team and played water polo.
Debate is sometimes seen as an elite sport that doesn't appeal to a broad base of students but Gobberdiel rebuts that notion. "One of the best teams in the country is from inner-city New York," he said. He thinks there would be more participation at OPRF if speech were a required course.
"Former OPRF debaters have gone on to top schools like University of Chicago, Stanford and Amhurst," he observed.
Rothenbaum will be attending Trinity University in Texas next year. But he and Cramer are so dedicated to debate they're going to compete in the National Forensic League Tournament in Indianapolis after they graduate from OPRF.
They'll be the team lugging the plastic tubs.
Courtesy ARNIE ROTHENBAUM