Debaters bring annual war of words

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / January 14, 2010

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Armed with arguments and 10-gallon tubs full of supporting evidence, hundreds of high school students from around the country will be in Lexington this weekend to wage debate.

The Lexington Winter Invitational, one of the largest high school-hosted debates in the country, will run tomorrow through Monday, and will involve about 600 students as well as dozens of chaperones, coaches, and judges.

Nicknamed Big Lex, the tournament has been hosted at Lexington High School for more than two decades, and is a qualifying debate for the annual Tournament of Champions held in Lexington, Ky., said Sara Sanchez, director of debate for the high school.

“It’s a huge deal for us,’’ she said. “There will be hundreds of rounds going at all times.’’

Students from as far away as California will compete in the program, which has three debate categories, public forum, policy, and Lincoln-Douglas, Sanchez said.

Many of the fast-talking policy debaters will be lugging laptops, printers, and containers full of documents in support of their arguments, said Tracy Miller, a parent who helped coordinate Big Lex two years ago.

“They come in with these enormous tubs of evidence on dollies,’’ Miller said. “The entire high school is filled with scattered tubs.’’

Topics for the competition every year are established by the National Forensics League, a debate and speech honor society based in Wisconsin, said Scott Wunn, its executive director.

“The Lexington event is certainly one of the largest nationwide,’’ said Wunn, who has attended Big Lex in past years.

This weekend, the students will argue the merits of a number of propositions, including whether the US government should increase social services for people living in poverty; whether economic sanctions should be used to obtain foreign policy objectives; and whether President Obama’s plan to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan is in the best interests of the United States.

The debate team from Lexington High School won’t be competing this weekend. As the tournament’s hosts, they will be too busy making sure everything runs smoothly, Sanchez said.

Mark Chonofsky, a Lexington High senior who has been on the debate team for four years, said one of his duties will be making sure ballots cast by the judges get to a tabulation room to determine the winners.

“We put all of our time into leading the tournament,’’ Chonofsky said. “It does take a lot of effort.’’

About 100 parents also help, said Mary Rae, whose son, Brendan, is a senior on the Lexington team. As a coordinator for this year’s Big Lex, Rae said, one of her goals is to get almost every parent with a child on the debate team to serve as a volunteer.

The roles for parents include giving some out-of-state students a place to stay, providing transportation for the judges, and running concession stands, Rae said.

The tournament charges a range of entry fees, including $55 for individuals in the Lincoln-Douglas category and $130 for a policy debate team, which help cover meals and school costs, Sanchez said.

The competition is also the debate team’s biggest fund-raiser of the year, she said; although there are some local debates, including an annual event hosted by Harvard University, the local students frequently travel across the country to compete. Sanchez said one upcoming debate is in Nashville.

Traveling and meeting fellow students with similar interests is one of the most rewarding facets of debating, Wunn said. “It’s a unique thing for a kid to be interested in.’’

Sanchez said students who participate tend to be studious, and are confident speakers as well.

She’s expecting Lexington High School to be full of conversation this weekend. Sanchez said: “Debaters, we don’t tend to have a lot of gaps in the conversation.’’