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A compelling story: no debate about it

Cross-X: The Amazing True Story of How the Most Unlikely Team From the Most Unlikely of Places Overcame Staggering Obstacles at Home and at School to Challenge the Debate Community on Race, Power, and Education
By Joe Miller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp. , $26

Forget the nerdy reputation that debate has. Instead think of a scenario as exciting as a sports game with high stakes like triumphing over racism, bad politics, and abject poverty .

For one year, journalist Joe Miller followed the Kansas City Central debate squad, an African-American team from a failing inner-city high school. Only one in three students ever graduates and the school has been declared "academically deficient." Despite the odds stacked against them, the team zoomed ahead in 2002 to win a top- 10 place at the national championships.

How did they do it? It wasn't easy. Schools with million-dollar budgets have the resources not only to properly train their kids, who are primarily white, but to take them all over the world to debate camps. Inner-city schools are at a loss for funds . Even the debating style puts the inner-city kids at a disadvantage. Debaters need to use esoteric, scholarly materials that inner-city kids often can't find in their libraries and, even worse, sometimes can't read or understand. But Kansas City Central kids have a champion, a woman named Jane Rinehart , who dedicates herself to helping them . She fights the state and school district , which are determined to close the program because of its cost .

At first, Miller intends to focus on four kids: seniors Marcus Leach and Brandon Dial , who see a national championship win as their ticket to college, and younger newbies, Ebony Rose and Antoine Lewis . But then something happens. Miller becomes entangled in the kids' troubled lives and in the extraordinary drama of debate itself. Before long, he is as passionately invested in winning as the kids are, and he willingly throws journalistic objectivity and ethics aside. In no time, Miller has morphed into the assistant coach for the team . And here's where the book catches fire.

One thing he wants to alter is debate style. National debate style favors the privileged because it depends on resources. It's hard, too, for inner-city kids to get excited about debate because the topics aren't personal or meaningful to them. Miller begins to be taken with what is called the Louisiana style. Here, debate is personal and relevant to the kids' lives. They are encouraged to argue with passion, in whatever format they choose, including rap. Miller urges them to think about debating real people, such as members of the American Bar Association, on issues that come from their own experience and worldview. He pushes them to get emotional and creative, and as the squad begins to debate in this new style, they start crushing opponents . Suddenly, winning seems possible, and self-respect flourishes.

When Miller reaches out to other schools with his new method of debate, he's met with hostility because the other teams don't know how to debate in this new style. Even worse, Rinehart takes the shift personally, believing that Miller's choice is effectively saying that everything she's worked so hard to do in her nine-year stint is obsolete. She is torn because she wants the debate squad to beat the white kids using their white rules, but she also wants them to have pride -- and to win.

Part of the drama of the book comes in the complicated family lives of the debaters. Marcus Leach was born to a family of sharecroppers. He hates school, but he knows debate could lead him to a career in politics. Ebony Rose's mother is a drug addict, and he lives in homeless shelters. But these kids persevere, despite an occasional bout of self-destructiveness.

While " Cross-X " might have started out as a " Rocky " -like story of a team conquering great odds, it morphs into an important, thoughtful, and provocative look at race and class in America, celebrating the tiny -- and triumphant -- inroad that these kids made in their lives and in the world of debate.

Caroline Leavitt's latest novel is " Girls in Trouble. " She can be reached at carolineleavitt.com.

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