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Ross Murray's Border Report
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Ross Murray
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is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at ross_murray@sympatico.ca
Posted 11.12.05
Stanstead, Quebec

ROSS MURRAY

Don't mess with debaters

A few weeks into my current job, I found myself sitting in a fairly important meeting. An issue was bothering me, and my boss, noticing a perplexed look on my face, asked, "Ross, what are you thinking?"

I replied, "I'm not thinking anything."

Genius...

I quickly recovered and stumbled into a response that attempted to convey what I was, in fact, thinking about. Sort of. Like, kind of. Ummm, ya know?

This could have been a chapter straight out of The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People.

Considering I work with language for a living, you'd think I'd be more at ease speaking. It's not shyness, simply an inability to find the right word at the right moment. You might wonder why I don't speak like I write. Well, actually I do: it's slow, it takes a couple of tries to say what I mean and I do it best in my pajamas.

Some people have the Gift of the Gab, I have the Unwanted Fruitcake of Awkward Conversation. You have a Silver Tongue. I have Tinfoil Tonsils.

What makes this particularly humbling is that I know so many people who are completely at ease talking, whether privately or publicly. I know people who can talk and talk and talk. Sometimes I duck into an empty office when I see these people coming, but other times I just stand back and marvel at how they can tell a story or itemize the contents of their kitchen cupboard with perfect fluidity and accuracy.

I found myself accordingly humbled and awed this past weekend when I accompanied some students to a high school debating tournament at McGill University in Montreal.

I know what you're thinking. When you think "debater," you think the N-word: "nerd."

And let's be honest. Few high school debaters are likely to win athletic trophies. Heck, some of them can't lift athletic trophies.

But don't get cocky. Don't let you're guard down. Push a debater too far and she may not clean your clock but she might beat you up with a bon mot, slap you with a syllogism, pummel you with a paradox, lash you with logic. If you're like me, you wouldn't stand a chance. You'd be a humiliated puddle before you could say, "Says you!"

Not only were the kids last weekend stunningly confident but they had their own vocabulary - tabs, brackets, clash, POI. I thought the latter had something to do with Hawaiian pineapple but in fact it stands for "point of information," what the rest of the world calls &quiot;butting in."

Here's how debating works. Each team of two is paired off with another. After the proposition is unveiled, they get fifteen minutes to prepare arguments for or against. One resolution last weekend read "This House would favour socio-economic affirmative action instead of race-based affirmative action in American college admissions."

My position on this issue was "Huh?"

The debate begins with the prime minister speaking for seven minutes in favour of the resolution. This is followed by seven minutes of counter-arguments from the member opposite, then more pro arguments and rebuttal from a second government member, ten minutes of rebuttal from the leader of the opposition, and finally three more minutes of rebuttal from the PM.

That's a lot of talking. Non-stop, structured, logical arguments. And not one person last weekend used my favourite argument, which is, "Don't be stupid. What a stupid idea. Stupid-head.&qiuot;

Some students, of course, were more at ease than others. I sat in awe, for example, as I watched the final round between Halifax Grammar School and Upper Canada College.

These kids spontaneously used phrases like "statutory benefits," "secular ideologies" and "out of harmony with our principals." I'm not sure what they were talking about but, damn! it sounded impressive.

How did I manage myself among all these brilliant teens? I did what I usually did when surrounded by people blessed with eloquence. I shut up. My secret hope is that I come off as having quiet wisdom. I reinforced this notion by spending much of my time between debates doing a crossword puzzle - a cryptic crossword puzzle.

Genius!

So kids, be nice to the debaters. Many will go to law school, and it would be a shame if you couldn't get out of that Turkish prison just because you gave your lawyer a wedgie in high school.

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