Breaths

Between the fall of 1991 and the spring of 2006, I was engaged almost daily in the task of preparing students for competition in speech and debate. I didn't intend that, having as I did no experience with forensic competition of any sort beforehand, but when you're a newly-certified teacher with a baby on the way and you're looking for your first job, when the principal asks if you can assist the debate coach you say "Absolutely."

Under the tutelage of Cathy Johnston, I discovered that my experience in drama (developed at Chapel Hill High and nurtured at the ArtsCenter), my natural ability to talk (honed by years of practice on WXYC), and my natural analytical abilities made me a pretty fair assistant coach. Cathy pointed me toward Student Congress and then Lincoln-Douglas debate, two events where I greatly enjoyed watching my students succeed, and I learned enough from her that when it came time to move from Fayetteville, I felt comfortable telling Woodberry's then-headmaster, John Grinalds, that I could start a team at WFS--if he'd let me spend two weeks getting coached up at the University of Iowa's debate camp that summer.

Thus, in July of '95, I spent two weeks in Iowa City, steeping myself in L-D theory, rhetorical structure, and a crash course in social contract philosophy. I came out feeling loaded for bear, and when I started my new team at Woodberry--with a whopping two students--I knew I could build a program.

It took a while. Luckily, I had some of Woodberry's most brilliant minds to work with, which helped the program take steps quickly. In 1997, we had our first student qualify for a national tournament: the National Catholic Forensic League finals in Baltimore. In 1999, we had two qualify, one in Lincoln-Douglas debate and the other in Student Congress, and we took a trip to Chicago. In 2002, two Congressmen made the NCFL nationals in Pittsburgh (where we saw a Pirates-Cardinals game) and one of them qualified for the National Forensic League national tournament in Charlotte. In 2004, we had our first state champion (in Student Congress), and he and one of our LDers qualified for NCFL nationals in Boston. (I ate scrod, visited Stephen Jay Gould's old stomping ground, and saw a Red Sox-Mariners game at Fenway, where I bought a Sox cap--BEFORE they won the Series!).

Then in 2005, everything came together. We had a strong Congress delegation, anchored by a defending state champion, as well as a solid L-D squad and even a top-notch performer in Original Oratory. We brought home trophies in bundles, and at the Va. Catholic Forensic League state tournament, we won the team championship in the debate division, with individual titles in both Congress and L-D. I earned my diamond from the National Forensic League (signifying 10,000 points earned by my students in competition) and felt good about my efforts, despite the fact that a change in Woodberry's calendar meant we couldn't attend the NCFL nationals because all my qualifiers were graduating that same weekend.

The next year, despite the shiny championship trophy in the case and my new-minted Degree of Outstanding Distinction from the NFL, I found it harder and harder to face practice in the afternoons. I didn't want to do any prep work, and practices began to drag on and on, especially on Tuesdays and Fridays, when I would often have to spend four hours at a time listening to my speakers. (A Lincoln-Douglas round takes 45 minutes, not counting the time spent on analyzing the debate and correcting mistakes; most individual speaking events take ten minutes, not counting coaching time, and an unabbreviated Student Congress session is two hours long.) I began showing up late for practice--never by more than a few minutes, but regularly. We were defending state champions, but I felt like I was trying to pump water out of a dry well.

After a while, I started asking myself what was going on, and I realized I really didn't like coaching debate anymore. I stayed gamely on top of it, but my misery was increasing, and the long days of competition were brutal: waking at 5:00 or even earlier in order to get to tournaments, eating unhealthy meals at fast-food joints, sitting in the judge's lounge popping donuts like mints and swilling bad coffee, wearing out my hands writing detailed flow-sheets of debates so that I had good notes by which to judge the winner (and to help his/her coach when I wrote the details on the ballot), waiting endlessly for results to be tabulated and trophies handed out, and then driving back home in the dark... I began to notice that a significant number of the coaches in the world of debate were morbidly obese, too.

By February, I was having to spend time sitting in a darkened room just to gear myself up to go to practice. I missed work altogether a couple of times, unable to muster the desire to get up and do my job. Then one afternoon before practice, I started to feel a tightness in my chest; my breathing was rapid and shallow and I felt increasingly helpless before the shadow that the upcoming practice was casting over me.

This was bad. I talked to my assistant coach to tell him I was having problems, and he gamely offered to help out however he could, but there was no question that I was dumping an awful lot on him already, and he didn't really have the experience yet to run the team without me. I also informed the team that I was struggling, and asked them for patience with me, which is a lot to ask a bunch of high-school students, but they were unfailingly kind.

Finally, on one cold dark Saturday morning, with the weather turning foul and my stress level maxing out, I simply couldn't do it. I couldn't make myself go to the tournament. Hell, I could barely catch my breath. I called my assistant and apologized, telling him I'd be unable to go, which effectively destroyed the team's ability to go, since I wouldn't be on hand to serve as a judge. (Judges are always in short supply at a tournament, so to compete, you've got to provide judges.) I apologized to the team as well, but I knew this was the end for me. I made an appointment with a counselor, and after getting some advice on coping mechanisms, I was able to escape my onrushing depression, but I knew that I had to lay the matter on the line for my boss: I couldn't coach debate any longer. I accepted the job of directing a play in the winter instead, and there the matter has remained, though I've now moved my directing commitment to the fall.

I still tried to help out with debate. Once, when he had to be out of town, I even took the new coach's team to a tournament. It was miserable. Not only did I feel eerily out of place now, but the whole situation was more obviously awful than I'd recalled: the oppressive atmosphere in the home ec room where the judges were stationed, trying to catch up on paper-grading or bitching about their budgets; the student holding area in the cafeteria, where everyone sat for eight hours, punctuated by hour-long bursts of travel to rounds of competition, perched on the tiny round dots of the tables' built-in stools like stylites on pillars. I ate a bad hot dog for lunch, and then bought another one just to have something to do. Even my copy of C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces couldn't distract me from the unpleasantness. I didn't have a panic attack, thank god, but it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I could hardly believe I'd done it for fifteen years.

And then, just the other day, one of the senior members of our current forensics team, whom I'd coached as a freshman back in 2006-07, asked me to sit and listen to him doing an extemp speech at 4:30. After classes ended at 3:15, I sat in my classroom, working on various papers, farting around on the web, doing anything but thinking about my commitment to hear a speech and pass judgment upon it... and at 4:15, here it came: shortness of breath, accompanied by the desire to sit in a dark room for a while.

I walked down to the room where I'd agreed to meet him to apologize and tell him face-to-face I wouldn't be able to help. And then I walked outside, leaned on my car, breathed deeply for a few minutes, drove home, opened a beer, and went to bed for a few hours.

It is sometimes pleasant to revisit something you liked long ago, so that you can awaken in yourself an awareness of who you were then, and why you liked it. Perhaps oddly, in this instance it was somewhat comforting to be confronted with something that I really didn't like at all, so that I could be sure of my feelings.

No, I hadn't been making a big deal out of nothing; I wasn't mistaken in my recollections; I wasn't just tired of coaching and capable of returning to it after a little break.

It's a bit sad, perhaps, but it's certain. For me, perhaps forever, debate coaching isn't an option. And it's good to take a deep breath, close my eyes, and be sure of that.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on December 16, 2009 9:18 AM.

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