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In fast company

Lexington debate team excels in high-speed style

By Bella English
Globe Staff / March 29, 2009
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"Resolved: The United gover should alter ener in States."

Say what?

If you thought it was hard to follow the Joe Biden-Sarah Palin debates, try listening to the Lexington High School team. Those sentence fragments are about all a normal person could catch during a recent practice session. The actual resolution: "The United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States."

This group of fast-talkers is hardly your average debating club. For the past 33 years, including yesterday's championship in Danvers, the Lexington team has won the state tournament and garnered all sorts of national awards. It recently came in second - behind the prestigious Bronx High School of Science - in a field of 20 schools from across the country.

These teenagers debate at high speeds, with arguments spewed out at a breakneck clip of as many as 400 words a minute, about as fast as the most hyper auctioneer. (In contrast, average speech contains about 150 words a minute.) The point is obvious: to try to squeeze in as many arguments as possible in a limited time.

But what if the judges can't understand what you're saying?

"Most judges are those who debated in high school and college, and you really do develop an ear for it quickly," said Sara Sanchez, the Lexington team coach who debated in high school and at the University of Utah. "We really do debate to the judge. If someone doesn't like the fast, 'spread'-style debate, we won't do it. We'll slow down."

That doesn't happen often. So the Lexington debaters continue to practice speaking while holding pens with their teeth (for clarity) and a chair in their hands (to keep their diaphragms straight). They sometimes read backward to help them absorb the words. In the summer, many attend debate camp at colleges.

Though the quick style of debate is more common on college campuses, there are a handful of such high school debaters in Massachusetts. Nationally, there are three styles of debate. Policy debate can be done at any pace, but since competition is stiff, debaters usually speak briskly. Teams of two research a yearlong topic. In Lincoln-Douglas debates, the topics change every two months; debaters can go at a regular or fast pace. Public forum debates are shorter and slower, and the topics change every month.

Seniors Apoorv Kumar and Hao Shen form the top policy debate team at Lexington this year (they are also cocaptains of the varsity swim team). On a recent day, they were practicing after school with teammates. On the board is written: "TOC Countdown 39 days." That's the Tournament of Champions, to be held at the University of Kentucky during Derby weekend, May 2-4. It's the most prestigious of competitions, and Lexington wants to make a good showing.

Kumar and Shen, along with senior William Huang and sophomore Vivian Guo, worked on their arguments and delivery, practicing both the affirmative and negative. The national topic, alternative energy, doesn't change all year. They've researched the subject to the max, carting their evidence around in plastic tubs.

But during delivery, they took only a few sheets of paper to the podium, each bearing main points in a form of shorthand. There's a whole lingo for rapid-fire debating, which is called "spreading" - "speed" and "reading" combined. Taking scribbled notes during arguments is called "flowing." The points are grouped chronologically, to keep up with each point made by the competitor.

Huang took a deep breath before plunging into a rebuttal. "That was much better," Sanchez said.

Slightly hunched, Shen bobbed back and forth at the makeshift podium and occasionally gestured to emphasize a point. When he came up for air, it was a quick inhalation or two, as if he just received shocking news. Though he spoke in complete sentences, this is what an observer heard: "After Three Mile Island . . . industry wouldn't allow more accidents . . . no one actually died . . . move away from oil-dependent economy . . ." He was rebutting the argument just made by Kumar that nuclear power is a bad idea.

The students understand that the intense, quick speech is the way to go. "If my opponent speaks fast and makes 10 arguments and I can only rebut five, I'm going to lose," said Shen, 17.

Kumar, 18, believes that faster method actually goes deeper than its slower cousin. "If everyone is speaking at 350 words a minute, you get to access more information. You can discuss seven more things and in more depth." His personal best: 425 words a minute.

Kumar practices his speed drills by reading paragraphs forward and backward and clamping a pen between his teeth. "It's like a weightlifter using different machines," he said.

Critics say that the fast tempo encourages debaters to make several weak arguments instead of a few strong ones. Sanchez, 30, disagrees. "Poor arguments don't do very well whether they are made quickly or slowly. These kids have done thousands of pages of research on this topic and are constantly refining those arguments to make all of them as strong as they can possibly be. I always emphasize they should only go as fast as they can speak clearly."

Sanchez, who also teaches five classes of debate at the school, has 97 students on her team. There are no tryouts; you just show up for practice. "It's a wonderful activity for people to be exposed to. It takes kids and has them research current events at a college level," she said.

As for the supersonic delivers, there is limited use in real life, unless you want to be an auctioneer or one of those hyperactive announcers on commercials. Still, the exercise helps students learn to multitask for debate preparation and arguments, Sanchez said. "The real-life application is the ability to think quickly and comprehend large amounts of information."

Sophomore Vivian Guo sat silently while the seniors practiced. Finally, it's her turn. Lips flying, her words came out rat-a-tat-tat. At the end of five minutes, she clocked 325 words per minute. She looked a bit flushed.

"I'm just a little thirsty," she said.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

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