High School Highlights

Despite feeling that I was the odd man out throughout my high school years, I appreciate three special gifts I received during that time. The first was my freshman English teacher persuading me that I should join the school’s debate team. I hesitated, partly because it had only been three years since I started to learn English, but also because being on the debate team was another mark of not being one of the “cool” kids in school. As a good student who always did his homework, I had already learned to carry my books back and forth on the bus in a school gym bag to avoid comments from my classmates. Being in debate was just another way of decreasing my peer esteem. On the other hand, it was already so low that I agreed to join, especially since I liked the teacher, who was going to be my coach. (None of us realized he would die tragically at the age of 24 in a boating accident the next summer.)

We all like to do things which we are good at, and it turned out I had talent as a debater. When one member of our senior team had to drop out following a car accident, I was promoted to be the other senior’s partner. At first, my new partner was less than thrilled to have me working with him, but after we placed second in a big tournament, he offered grudging acceptance of my contributions to the win. For those not familiar with high school debate, this is how it works.

Every year a new topic is chosen for the subject of the debate, and every school in the country prepares to argue that single topic. Teams consist of two students, and every team has to be prepared to argue both for and against the chosen proposition. Which side you’re on is determined by lottery prior to the start of each round. Each speaker is given 8 minutes to present their case, followed by a four minute rebuttal from the other team. A judge (or a panel for major tournaments) listened to each contest, determined the winner, and gave written criticism to each side. The winners proceeded through round robin elimination against other winning teams until the victor of the tournament was crowned.

Of all my high school education, debate provided the greatest long term benefit to my life. Not only did I learn how to think rapidly on my feet, how to analyze someone else’s arguments and offer my own, but how to use the library for research, how to improve my own oratorical skills, and to realize that in any debate, the other side sometimes lies. As my standings improved and I was given better partners, we started winning tournaments. This gave me the opportunity to travel around the country at someone else’s expense, as we qualified for national tournaments in New York City, Washington D.C., Denver and Miami. I had a chance to make new friends who shared some of my interests, and learn about topics such as the pros and cons of a common market and federal subsidies for schools. I had a chance to see how money creates inequalities in our educational system. We did all our own research, and wrote up our findings on 3×5 index cards, which we carried with us in metal boxes to each tournament. When we reached Nationals, we came up against wealthy schools like Coral Gables, Florida, (perennial winners) whose teams carried legal suitcases of cross referenced data, professionally created, and whose speakers were coached by teams of attorneys hired by wealthy parents. It gave me tremendous satisfaction in my junior year to knock off one of their teams, before losing in the semifinals to a school from Scarsdale, New York.

My second gift in high school came from having some of the best teachers I ever encountered in my long educational career. At the top of this list was my teacher in honors US History, who expected and demanded of us work at the level of an advanced college course. His classes always forced us to think, and he wouldn’t accept lazy answers from anyone. If you told him you didn’t know something, he demanded you look it up. You could be sure the question would come back to you the next day, and you’d better have the answer. He assigned to each of his classes a term paper on a historical topic of your choice, at least 50 pages typed, with footnotes and a bibliography of which at least 10% had to be primary sources. If the topic of the Missouri Compromise of 1854 ever comes up, I’m your man. In addition to the main Chicago Public Library, I spent a lot of time at the Chicago Historical Society, reading letters and diaries of ordinary people as well as politicians. I came away with not only an appreciation of what life in those times was like, but also of how well people with only a grammar school education could write! His classes and my experiences truly inspired me, and taught me what a great country we have! I almost chose teaching as a profession, had it not been for later opportunities that appealed even more.

My final lasting gift from high school was appreciation of classical music, thanks to the remarkable priest who was our school principal. He had a long standing fight with the school system that determined the standard curriculum, asking to include music appreciation as part of our studies. This request kept being turned down year after year, until he finally decided to do it himself “off the books.” He asked my class how many of us were interested in coming to school and meet with him for an hour in his office before school started at 8:30 in the morning. He told us the subject would be music appreciation, and there would be no grade or credit given. Primarily because he was such a charismatic individual, a dozen of us signed up, and eight of us persevered to meet with him throughout our senior year. He would spend about 15 minutes talking with us about a given composer or style of music, then proceed to play selections of the composer (or music style) on the record player he kept in his office. Our sessions with him went beyond just music. As we grew to trust him as a person, as well as trust each other to maintain the confidences shared in his office, discussions could veer off to personal issues we were having with our parents or friends, and as the year wore on, our approaching graduation and the choices we faced. The Vietnam War was already in full swing, and several in our group were thinking of enlisting, while others looked at college as a means of avoiding the draft. We had some heated discussions on the topic, on which he never offered his own personal position. He would simply ask each of us probing questions as to why we held the positions we did, but never attempted to impose his own views on us. To this day, I still don’t know if he was in favor or opposed to American involvement. What I do know is how we all grew as people in the time we spent with him, and how, when I hear a particular score or composer, I am still reminded of those early mornings in his office in Chicago.

More to follow…

This entry was posted in America, Chicago, Music, School, Thoughts & Musings, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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