Casey Templeton photo
In just minutes, a panel of debaters from George Wythe High will take the stage to face off against a team from Thomas Jefferson. Tension is brewing. At the foot of the stage, some nerves are shaken on the Wythe team. The debate team's opening speaker, Chelsea Lee, is a no-show. One of her teammates once again worries aloud to coach Lindy Bumgarner.
"For the last time, it doesn't matter ," Bumgarner says to the team, her voice a mixture of sternness and reassurance. "Chelsea might have had a problem with her baby, so we'll keep her and her baby in our thoughts and prayers, and we'll move on."
But soon enough, it's a moot point. "Thank God!" gasps one of the students as Chelsea rushes into the auditorium and down the side aisle with eight minutes to spare. Having taken a class at the city's technical school in North Side, she was caught up on a GRTC bus back to Wythe on the South Side. She's clutching her handwritten copy of the team's introductory speech, which she memorized on her bus ride.
The students on both teams make their final preparations, arming themselves with papers and notes, and eventually assemble around tables on opposite ends of the stage. Their attire runs the gamut, from polo shirts and jeans to suits. Joseph Gray, T.J.'s captain, sports a black tie and slacks with a white shirt and white-leather basketball shoes. Dre'mon Miller, Wythe's co-captain, dons his Sunday best — an electric-blue dress suit with blue-and-white wingtip shoes.
Two empty podiums, in pools of light, face each other. It's time for a debate to begin.
Words, Not Weapons
The idea of a debate program for Richmond high school students was hatched partly in a locker room of the Downtown YMCA during the late summer of 2007. That's where two friends, Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring and novelist David L. Robbins, ran into each other and started talking about ways to engage urban high-school students.
Herring's premise: What if we could help at-risk high schoolers bypass the tragic statistics that seem to ensnare so many of their peers? What if we could teach them the value of using words instead of weapons?
Out of that conversation Robbins coined the name the "Pen Project," leaning on the adage that "the pen is mightier than â€¨the sword."
The writer and the prosecutor saw a chance to channel raw talent into promise. "If the kids who have sharp tongues and equally sharp wits can learn to communicate constructively, imagine just how valuable and how much of an asset they'll be," Herring explains.
Herring and Robbins had more talks and riffed off of one another, dreaming up a free-form program.
"We had great big lofty ideas at first," Herring says. "We wanted to incorporate music. We wanted to incorporate poetry. We figured, however the kids come to us with an idea to express, we'll take it and turn it into something constructive."
So, in September 2007, Herring began planting the seeds for a pilot program. He hired Bumgarner as a special-programs director to oversee the Pen Project and other outreach efforts that could help chisel away at juvenile crime and mold student leaders.
Herring's office formed a partnership with Richmond Public Schools and began work on a pilot version of the Pen Project to run at Wythe during the second half of the 2007-2008 school year. To drum up interest, the prosecutor and his staff visited Wythe's English classes. They asked the teenagers to submit poetry, essays or even drawings that said something about who they are and why they wanted to join the program.
"A lot of it was ‘closet' writing," explains George Wythe's assistant principal, Kim Allen. Students brought in journal entries or poetry they had kept to themselves. Others were allowed to turn in artwork as long as they wrote an explanation of their efforts.
Presented with encouragement and a creative outlet, Allen says, some of the teens seized the moment. "A lot of times teenagers have feelings and things that they're not sure how to â€¨express — or if there's an appropriate way to express them," she says.
About 25 students submitted works. Some revealed the anger, loss and sense of injustice students were carrying around with them.
Porscha Wright, who's 16 and expects to graduate next year, submitted a poem in rhyming verse that shared the experience of her stepfather's murder when she was 13:
A shot to the heart — they might as well did me too
Look at all the pain they put my family through
It was early in the process, but the school officials, Robbins and Herring's staff could see the first signs of students' transformation. "There's nothing that vexes these students more than a sense of powerlessness," says Robbins, who earned a law degree before turning to fiction writing.
By the beginning of 2008, Herring and Bumgarner ended up with about nine kids in the pilot version of the Pen Project.
The Wythe students were allowed to dabble in various forms of expression. One assignment challenged them to write poems on the topic of whether it is acceptable to use violence for â€¨political reasons.
Bumgarner even took the group on a field trip to an open-mic night at a coffee house on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. For some of them, it was their first experience at the downtown university. The youngsters took their turns at the microphone, sharing their own words alongside college kids.
Porscha recited the poem about her stepfather's killing and also performed a rap about partying and money.
It wasn't long before Herring recognized that the original scope he and Robbins had brainstormed was too broad. He jokes that Bumgarner stayed patient while he experimented further with the structure.
"I had all these notions of sharing the principles of constitutional law with the kids," he says. "And for the first 10 minutes they were into it. Then you saw their eyes glaze over, â€¨because there's only so far you can go with 10th-graders on first-â€¨amendment analysis."
He went on, "What it whittled down into was the kids wanting to engage each other in competitive but constructive argument."
In planning the pilot program's culminating event — a banquet at a pizza parlor — it was decided that the commonwealth's attorney would challenge the Wythe students to a contest using the Lincoln-Douglas style of debate.
Under the Lincoln-Douglas format — modeled after a series of debates in 1858 between U.S. Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas — a coin flip determines which team argues "pro" and which argues "con" on the topic at hand. Each team has a chance to present opening statements and evidence, to cross-examine its opponents and to rebut the arguments made by the other side.
They set a topic: Hip-hop and rap music are detrimental to youth and should be banned.
Herring's team drew the task of arguing the affirmative while the Wythe team would argue the negative.
Bumgarner says the preparation was "research-light" to put the emphasis on the idea of debating rather than the mechanics. And to keep it friendly, neither team was declared the winner.
"When you focused them on a topic and competing together against the coaches, they liked that," she says.
And that sealed it. The next school year, the Pen Project would become an urban-debate league.
Form and Function
Because Bumgarner already had experience with the concept of urban debate, she used the existing Washington, D.C., league as a model when she and Herring moved to include Thomas Jefferson High this school year.
Bumgarner agreed to coach the Wythe students while Herring and another attorney worked with the T.J. students.
Urban debate arose in 1985 when an Emory University professor, Melissa Maxcy Wade, sparked a partnership with two Atlanta public high schools to create a league, according to the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues. Around the same time, similar efforts cropped up in Philadelphia â€¨and Detroit.
Today, there are approximately 40 such city leagues in the nation, says Kevin Kuswa, a professor of rhetoric and communications at University of Richmond.
As director of UR's nationally competitive debate team, Kuswa keeps an eye on powerhouse programs around the nation — at both high-school and college levels. In 2001, he came to UR from Austin, Texas, where he had helped establish an urban debate league.
Before Kuswa's arrival at Richmond, the university hadn't qualified for the national collegiate debate competition since 1975. It took him several years to recruit and coach a solid roster, but in 2003, a UR team went to nationals for the first time in nearly 30 years.
In some states, such as Texas, debate is a very popular, highly competitive extracurricular activity. By comparison, Virginia has only pockets of high-school competition, according to Lisa Giles, director of activities for the Virginia High School League. Northern Virginia and the Tidewater region, she says, have the state's highest concentration of debate teams (also known as forensics leagues).
But in Central Virginia, "it struggles as an activity," she says.
Local schools that have been known to field debate teams include, among others, Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, Midlothian High School, Deep Run High School and Atlee High.
Perhaps one reason debate competition has struggled for popularity over the past 30 or so years has been a change in format during that time.
While the students in the Pen Project engage in the Lincoln-Douglas form, the "traditional" form of competitive debate in high school and college is known as policy debate.
Policy debate generally puts heavy emphasis on making as many arguments as possible. As a result, debaters in some leagues speak at brain-melting speeds of hundreds of words per minute and use jargon that crams information into each sentence.
Policy debate gets its name from the object of the exercise, which is to challenge or question U.S. government policy, and a single topic is intensively researched and debated for one year.
Pen Project students address policy topics but stick to normal oratory exchanges — no speed-reading.
Apart from generating student interest in debate, it can be a challenge to find the money and coaches for high-school teams, Giles says.
Kuswa says that full-fledged high-school debate teams like the ones he coached in Texas need more funding than most would assume because the activity requires teams to intensively research their topic and to travel to multi-day competitions.
Giles adds that many high-school debate coaches are not experts in that activity. Often, they are simply the faculty members who agree to stay after school and give the students basic direction.
Even less-intensive programs, Giles says, quickly exceed any meager budget a school might commit. "Debate is not something you can charge admission for and get paid for at the gate," she notes. "It doesn't pay for itself."
Keeping It Real
In late January of this year, the Wythe students were preparing for the early February debate against Thomas Jefferson's team, their first true bout, since a previous meeting in December 2008 was just a scrimmage.
The topic: "Virginia should allow convicted felons to vote." From the coin flip, Wythe ended up with the "con" stance, attacking the statement. In Virginia, convicted felons do not have the right to vote unless the governor restores it.
In the Wythe auditorium, Montrell White, a 15-year-old sophomore who shares captain duties with Dre'mon Miller, 16, takes the podium to work on an opening argument.
Montrell is a clean-cut kid, his short hair trimmed high and straight across his forehead and close to the scalp. He's wearing a sports jacket, tie and a button-down shirt with blue jeans. When he meets a reporter covering the debate for the first time, he hands him a résumé, a high-schooler's accounting of his first marketable accomplishments, including his expected diploma two years from now, the debate team and editorship for a student publication.
During his practice speech, Montrell takes impassioned aim at those who commit crimes such as drug dealing, child molestation and sexual assault. "They murder our souls and rob us of our dreams," he says, laying down a litany of offenses. His baritone voice projects through the empty auditorium, and during the pauses, his adamant words echo.
"Giving felons back their voting rights," he says, "is like giving an alcoholic alcohol. So why should they have their right to vote again?"
Like the other topics Herring and Bumgarner chose for the Pen Project, this one has direct relevance to the students at these two schools, many of whom fit in that vague description of "at-risk." Two are teen mothers, and most come from single-parent homes. At least three have deceased parents, two of the deaths owing to gun violence. And at least one student has a parent who was a convicted felon — and would like to regain the right to vote.
"These are topics that are real to our students, that our students experience on a regular basis," says Thomas Jefferson's principal, Tanya Roane. "It's their real world."
The Pen Project students at Wythe are not necessarily the kids who get the most attention, Allen notes. They're the "kids in the middle," she says, the ones who keep their heads down, do their work and stay out of trouble for the most part. They are not always on top of the honor roll but also are not constantly being hauled into the principal's office for making trouble.
Because they don't tend to stand out, either for brilliance or wickedness, it's easy for them to get overlooked or to miss out on resources or attention that could help them climb a rung or two closer to high achievement.
Roane and Allen agree that the Pen Project has proved a transforming experience for their students so far. Allen notes the case of Wythe freshman Malcolm Bell, who began the school year as a sheepish kid and has crossed the spectrum to become a more direct communicator. "Malcolm used to have a conversation with you, and it would be really low-toned, and you would have to ask, ‘Malcolm, what did you say?' "
Montrell's mother, Chaka White, says her son, too, has blossomed in the past year through the Pen Project. "He was a shy child," she says. "He was shy even at home."
When Montrell came home from one of the first program sessions and said he couldn't do it, Chaka encouraged her son, whose fondness for criminal-law shows on TV such as CSI has inspired him to pursue law school one day. "I said, ‘Montrell, if you're going to be a lawyer, this program is going to be good practice for you.' "
Robbins tends to think that the transformation comes from a sense of empowerment. "Persuasion is power," he says. "That's what we're trying to tell these kids: You have power."
Watch Montrell and Joseph Gray, Thomas Jefferson's debate captain, square off, and you will see sparks fly. When they clash on stage, it seems unlikely that these two budding debaters ever questioned their powers of persuasion.
Montrell exhibits the style of a boxer delivering quick, forceful jabs — sometimes well placed, sometimes not — to try to get his opponent off balance and flustered, confused by the barrage. Joseph, meanwhile, tactfully attacks his opponents' logic by playing it back to them, rewording it, twisting it and then questioning it incredulously. His aim is to corner the opponent and deliver a lethal strike.
Joseph's teammate Deandria Spears, a 17-year-old senior at T.J., describes their very different approaches to debate: She devotes serious effort to her research and to carefully writing out her arguments, while Joseph — very possibly gifted with a photographic memory — relies on his recall and rhetorical ability.
"Since I prepare myself before I speak, I think it comes across," Deandria says, adding a gentle zing at Joseph: "He could actually learn to take a few notes."
Like many of the students on the two teams, Deandria confesses that her attraction to debate is driven by a personal tendency. "I like to have the last word," she says.
Joseph, meanwhile, was drawn to the Pen Project because he expected to find more students like himself.
"Truly and honestly, I feel pained by the fact that I feel so much brighter than the people in my school and I can't have intelligent conversations with them," he says, showing honest regret. "So when I heard about the debate team, it sparked my interest because I was hoping that it would give me a chance to sit down and think and discuss in a mature fashion."
Joseph, a 10th-grader, takes International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes with a pretty spotless record of A's and B's. This year, he has received preliminary recruitment letters from four colleges — VCU, Virginia Union University, Virginia Intermont College and Bridgewater College.
Joseph's story is a tale that might be staggering to anyone but himself, a fact that bore out as both teams met in April to practice for their final debate. Joseph sparred with prosecutor Herring on the topic of whether juveniles should be tried as adults.
Arguments spun around a child genius who abuses the legal system with the knowledge that he can't be re-tried for a crime. They explored the brain development of children and the effect of upbringing. Then one student offered a theory that a child's socioeconomic background could influence his ability to gauge right and wrong.
Joseph refuted this point with a story from personal experience.
For two years of his early childhood, he said, he lived in a van with his parents and about five or six siblings. The family had stumbled on tough financial straits after moving from Hampton to Richmond. Despite what he describes as "living in abject poverty," the experience was still positive, he says, because the family stayed happy together, making the best of the situation, and finally settled in a house.
But before he was 11, both of his parents passed away unexpectedly — a year apart from each other. His mother died from a seizure and his father, from a blood clot.
His aunt, Gloria Armstead, took over as guardian and put the children in grief counseling, but Joseph somehow talked his way out of the sessions, she says. Soon after, he developed symptoms of a mental breakdown, walking very shakily and showing signs of depression.
From the trauma of losing his parents, Joseph also lost three years of his memory, covering the span from when he was seven to 10 years old.
His walking became so bad that some counselors suggested he use a wheelchair. His aunt refused to let him, she says, because she was afraid it would be harder for him to rebound, which he has.
Over the years, Armstead says she has played taskmaster with Joseph and his brothers — John, 15, and Peter, 13 — encouraging them to explore any academic opportunity open to them.
When Joseph came home from school interested in the Pen Project, Armstead suggested John, a freshman at T.J., join the â€¨club, too.
A New Frontier
On May 14, Herring and Bumgarner assembled the Pen Project's two teams on the 17th floor of City Hall for the final debate of the program's first year.
It was a gathering of believers: Robbins, Kuswa, and Richmond Public School officials including several School Board members, Superintendent Yvonne Brandon and Dionne Ward, interim executive director of secondary education. A rare constellation of parents and relatives also filled the seats.
For 40 minutes, the familiar cast of characters pushed a topic back and forth across the semi-circular conference table in the wood-paneled School Board chambers.
Outnumbered, Joseph and brother John sat on one side. On the other, Wythe's six debaters: Chelsea, Dre'mon, Malcolm, Montrell, Porscha and Rachel Smith.
Their arguments and exchanges stirred some laughter from the parents and occasional head shaking or supportive nods.
In the end, Joseph and John, the remaining members of a whittled-down T.J. team, held their own, winning the judges over and ending the four-debate series in a 2-to-2 tie.
Around the room, most of the adults gave kudos to the kids when Bumgarner and Herring invited everyone to offer their critiques.
Next year, Herring says, the project will expand to include more schools, although how many isn't clear yet.
"Out of the city of Richmond," he told the crowd, "we may eventually have regional competitors to go up to Northern Virginia and down to Tidewater and then ultimately perhaps compete nationally."
Outside the door of the chambers, Superintendent Brandon said she was moved to tears by the promise of what she had seen. Alluding to a shooting outside a school the day before, she said the debate was just what she needed to see.
"It's teaching them the mechanics of good sound expression of their opinions," she said. "It's not through violent means. It's not through anger. It's through their intellect."