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The Great Debaters
When teenagers meet in the arena of ideas, the rhetorical gloves come off. It’s hard to argue against the power of high school debate in Oklahoma.
By Brian Ted Jones
Photography by James Pratt
Published November/December 2015
Lawrence Zhou and Nicky Halterman stand face to face amid a scrum of teenagers in jackets, ties, and suits rushing around, trading gossip, psyching themselves up, and prepping for the next round of Lincoln-Douglas debate. Nicky, a Norman High School senior, and Lawrence, a University of Oklahoma freshman, are outside the Beaird Lounge in the Oklahoma Memorial Union. Behind them, papers lie scattered over a piano in the corner—reports and ballots from the coaches’ audit, the last step before the quarterfinal round of the 2015 Oklahoma state speech and debate tournament. The audit is where early results are announced and debaters learn if they’ve got a shot at the state title.
Near the stairs stands Mattie Witman, a young woman from Edmond Santa Fe High School, pretty and rumpled in a suit and tie. She looks more like a high-powered appellate lawyer than a high school senior. It’s Mattie’s last year of debate, her last state tournament. It’s Nicky’s last year, too, but unlike Nicky, Mattie has spent most of her high school career as a policy debater, a separate event from Lincoln-Douglas with different rules and topics. She only got into LD, as participants call it, halfway through her junior year, but she’s hit the ground like an asteroid. She beat Nicky at the Southmoore High School tournament last November. At the regional tournament, Nicky was asked whom he expected to meet in the final round at state.
“Mattie,” he said.
Students polish their arguments at the state tournament.
Pacing beside Nicky and Lawrence is Amanda Wheelock, Nicky’s teammate from Norman. She’s also broken into the elite eight. She has dark hair, carefully curled, and she glows with stress, excitement, and nerves.
Everybody gives Nicky and Lawrence, who is helping judge the tournament, a wide berth. People glance at them, wondering what they’re talking about. It’s the debate version of seeing Kevin Durant and Allen Iverson exchange words before a game.
These two guys are rare in the world of Oklahoma debate. Less than a year ago, Nicky and Lawrence debated for the championship at the National Lincoln-Douglas Debate tournament in Overland Park, Kansas. They’d each gone fifteen rounds against some of the best high school debaters in the country. For the first time since 1983, two Oklahomans closed out the finals. It was shortly after Lawrence’s senior year at Bartlesville and Nicky’s junior year at Norman. The result was eyelash-close: Eight of the fifteen judges voted for Lawrence—a one-ballot margin of victory.
The quarterfinal round will start in five minutes.
That’s the knockout round.
It’s do or die.
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Get There: The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association hosts high school debate tournaments throughout the year. For more information and a complete schedule for the 2015-16 school year, visit ossaa.com/nonathletic/speechdebate. The 2016 Oklahoma state speech and debate tournament will be April 7 though 9 at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.