It might seem counterintuitive, but arguing is the cornerstone of a group of over 100 high schoolers. The Asheville High-SILSA Speech and Debate Team is enjoying record numbers this school year, with 102 participants. Five of those members are carrying on a tradition of competing at the highest level by going to national championships later this year — a feat the team has accomplished 16 years running, and 19 of the last 20 years.
While its competitive success is a decadeslong legacy, the team started small. Head Coach Keith Pittman took over a fledgling team in 1994 that was propped up by two members. Pittman says today’s record membership is a testament to victories of past teams, “I think the growth can be attributed to the program feeding off of itself over the years. As the team has become more active and successful and nationally known, more students have wanted to be a part of it. Many students have recruited their friends, and the program has exploded, especially in the last four years.”
During those past four years, students like Caleb Walker Wilson, a senior and four-year debate veteran, have created a welcoming environment to match the fiercely competitive atmosphere. Walker Wilson says debate is often seen as an individual sport, but insists you can’t go it alone. “Often we wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning and take a bus to Charlotte or other places, and then we’re super stressed out and thinking on our feet all day. So that sort of pressure calls for friendship that is forged out of necessity, but then it becomes a really organic and beneficial friendship among people in different grades and that do different things outside of debate. It’s a really good way to bridge barriers between sports, the classroom or other extracurriculars.”
Junior and team captain Isaac Pohl-Zaretsky agrees that there is strength in numbers, “Our team really is a tight-knit community, despite the fact that it’s huge, every single person knows each other’s name. Every single person is an incredibly amazing person to be around. You really feel like you’re part of a family.”
A sense of family is just what Lizzie Berlin, a junior and three-year participant, was looking for when she moved from California. Taking the step to join the team has paid off by improving her writing and communication skills, but she says it’s the intangibles that make it truly special, “We’ve really become like a family and it’s made everything a lot easier having someone else to talk to, whether you’re talking about debate or what you watched on TV last night.”
Berlin says her debate family goes far beyond conversations, as was confirmed while participating in a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis, a condition her mother, who recently passed away, was diagnosed with. “The debate team came and we all did the fundraiser together. They really supported my family, and it was when I realized the people on the debate team were really the people I want to surround myself with.”
Pittman adds, “I was so proud of them. It was one of the most touching moments I have ever observed as a coach and shows that we are more than just a team. We are truly a family.”
Chloe Dennison, a junior and three-year member, also came to the team as a freshman looking for a sense of place. “I was an incredibly shy middle schooler and my English teacher suggested I start debate to get public speaking skills, and I fell in love with it.” She says, outside of community, a major aspect of the team is expanding their horizons. “We want to win trophies and come home champions, but it’s not the most important part. The most important part is learning to be more aware of the world around us and become more conscious of the political scene in modern American and the world, and it’s really nice to do that with a group like-minded teenagers.”
Walker Wilson says researching different sides of issues helps you become more receptive other ideologies. “It definitely helps you take information you don’t always agree with and learn what people who agree with that think. And that not only helps you win a debate round, but it helps you become more accepting to different opinions, which is something we definitely need in our current political climate.”
Mira Carlinnia, a junior and three-year team member, was another freshman looking for an accepting environment where she could grow as a person. She admits to having been tentative about fitting in at first, but says those doubts quickly dissipated. “I struggled with self confidence a lot freshman year, and [debate team] definitely helped me become more sure of myself and know I can do a lot more than I think.” She says that’s playing a big part in setting the table for her future, “Debate has made me more confident in myself and my abilities. It made me more confident to write and talk about myself, which is a big part of the college application process.”
While debate team members are immersed in their present life and circle of friends, they are keenly aware of life after high school. Pohl-Zaretsky says meeting people while competing forges future connections. “Working with people from around the Southern region, and across the country, has allowed me to build relationships that have served me in a professional way,” he says.
Pittman says it’s a joy watching the students evolve during their time in debate. “The biggest area of growth I see is in confidence as a speaker. When students graduate from the speech and debate team, they leave as confident and polished speakers who are ready to take on just about anything life has to offer.”
And while life offers victories and defeats, Berlin says that’s all the more reason to be part of a community. “It’s not about winning every week. It feels great to win, but it’s about the family and friends you’ve made through debate, and that’s the most important thing for people to remember. Just because you don’t have success doesn’t mean you should give up, because it’s not just about winning a trophy. It’s about the experiences that you have.”
The Asheville High-SILSA Speech and Debate Team is sending five members to national championships in two different leagues. In the Catholic Forensic League nationals, being held Memorial Day weekend in Sacramento, Calif., Elizabeth Propst will compete in Congressional Debate and David Mathews will participate in Extemporaneous Speaking. In the National Speech and Debate Association National Championship, being held June 12-18 in Salt Lake City, Elizabeth Propst, Ethan Heilih and Isaac Pohl-Zaretsky will compete in Congressional Debate; David Mathews will compete in Extemporaneous Speaking; and Mira Carlinnia will compete in Program Oral Interpretation. The cost to send team members to both events comes to more than $18,000, for which the team has already raised about $14,000. An upcoming fundraiser debate, sponsored by Gum Hillier & McCroskey, P.A., features area lawyers and debate team members on Friday, April 29, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., at the Asheville High Arts Theater. The event is free, donations accepted. Food will be available before and after the event.