Closure in the Absence of the NDT
This is a guest post from Kristen Lowe. She debated at Emory and now coaches at Dartmouth:
The first time I heard that the National Debate Tournament committee was considering canceling the NDT, I was endorphin-high and sweat-drenched stepping out of a weekend boxing class. As I checked my missed emails, texts, and Slack messages that had accumulated in my hour-long disappearance from the digital world, I saw a message in the Dartmouth slack that the coronavirus was prompting talks of NDT cancelation and stopped in my tracks. I wiped my glasses with my shirt, put them back on, and looked at the coaches’ channel again. My boss’s words were still there. They can’t do that, I thought, dead-still in the middle of a crosswalk. It’s the NDT.
Disoriented in my sense of disbelief, I screen-captured the message and immediately sent it to a trusted friend. “Omg have you seen this?” I asked. “Yeah…” he replied, saying nothing else. Dartmouth was not the only team talking about this.
I rushed home, furiously texting everyone I know. This can’t be real, I kept thinking, shaking my head to dislodge the possibility. But the closer I got to my apartment and the more people responded, the realer it started to feel. “A physical NDT will likely not be happening,” Turner said with certainty to another Dartmouth coach. By the time I’d hazardously paced the half mile back to my apartment, the situation was heavy and material. Perhaps something would happen online or maybe there would be a hybrid option of some physical debates and some digital ones. But one way or another, by the time I reached my living room, the 2020 NDT was gone.
I want to forwardly acknowledge at this point that I am not one of the people most affected by these events. My days as a competitor, my last debate, and my last NDT are all behind me, where they rest peacefully. The debaters in the class of 2020 are the unequivocal victims of this circumstance, and it is their needs and their voices to which we owe our ears and care. In particular, the handful of seniors for whom this would be both their first and last NDT are due an extra sliver of our collective empathy. It is an enormous feat to qualify for the National Debate Tournament, one that exacts a proportionately enormous toll on everyone who achieves it. Despite all the difference we experience when gathered as a debate community, all of us know the sacrifice it takes to show up that final weekend. The constellation of choices that advance people onto that stage are an incomparable set of missed professional and social opportunities, sleepless nights, and hard feelings. To the people who made the sacrifices and will never see the arena, we owe you our deepest respect and our gratitude. To the class of 2020, I hope not to distract from how you feel but to honor it.
Over the course of the past few days since the original announcement that the NDT might be canceled, I have had dozens of conversations with students and coaches and spent countless hours stewing in the implications of an alternative NDT or an NDT that does not happen. I have also tried to think deeply and open-mindedly about the range of opinions community members have about what should happen next.
To the people who think that cancelation is an outrage, that every risk is an acceptable one in order to have the NDT, and that the committee is fear-mongering: I hear you. The people who believe that it’s all inconsequential in comparison to the very real pandemic we are living through and the obligations we have to our institutions: I hear you too. Part of the difficulty in trying to make sense of this situation is that there is truth – emotional and factual – on both ends of the spectrum and in all the positions held in between. There is no good answer, and the stakes are high no matter how you slice it.
In the face of all of this, I come with a basket empty of takes about what the right thing to do is. Is a digital NDT preferable to a cancelation? What best preserves the sense of dignity and honors the depth of recognition this year’s debaters deserve? Does a digital NDT cheapen the thing altogether? Is it worth the logistics trouble? Is the daunting asterisk next to whatever makeshift NDT comes next so disheartening that we should sidestep it entirely? For the people in the final leg of the long race of a college debate career, is there anything we owe them more than just one last chance to debate and for us to stand there in whatever form we can at the finish line?
I don’t have good answers to any of these questions. And with the intimate knowledge I absorbed from my own last debate that control over the fates of people whom you hold dear is a burden not a privilege, in moments like this I am relieved to be a young coach, unburdened by the pain of calling the shots.
However, as a recent competitor with my own wounds from a debate career that was ended in the gnarly jaws of circumstance, I do have a particularly fine-tuned sense of empathy for all parties. It is hard to control the fates of others, but it is also hard to stand there helpless and uncertain while watching the levers of your future being pulled at. It is a very small crawl space between a gargantuan rock and a diamond-hard place. I have never stood in this specific space, but the contours of the situation have given rise to a set of familiarly shaped feelings that I’ve tried to spend the last three years processing about what it means for a debate career to end unexpectedly. As the people I love, value, and most belong to navigate this together, I want to share some of those feelings and what I have learned from wading through them.
First, it was never just about winning – even for the people who won the most. Were it just about the opportunity to put your name on the side of the trophy, we would all be jumping at any semblance of an NDT, no matter how haphazardly thrown together. However, our community’s collective agitation over the inconvenience of a digital competition reveals more than just a shared distaste for technology. In truth, the NDT probably could be held online. It would be distressing to execute and annoying to participate in, but it could be done. But for the seniors who do not want their last debate to happen online, we owe it to them to not simply interpret that hesitation as a prideful desire for an audience and a fully credentialed championship. Those are not the stakes despite our awkwardness in articulating vulnerably what else is on the table.
Second, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, the truth is that most of us end our debate careers feeling like the victims of chance rather than the victors of our long-waged campaign. You are welcome to believe that there is some unique cosmic injustice in losing a debate because of a lagging video stream or the lackluster acoustics of a university basement. But as I’ve learned through several years of sleep lost to hypotheticals that move an Emory team a 0.3 speaker point jump into a different place in the bracket, in reality many of us are subject to forces beyond our control in those final hours of our debate careers.
Some of us lose because of the panel, some of us lose because of the flip, some of us lose because of the case neg that our teammate was too busy with midterms to finish, and some of us lose because we never had the shot that someone with more time, more money, and more opportunity had. The coaching advice I offer every student at every chance I’m given is to always prepare in a way they are proud of at all costs. At the end of the day, it will not be about the loss – it ends up being the things you would have, could have, and should have done differently to control the variables and the time you spend wishing that you had. And if you had the great foresight and discipline to do all those things right, you just might encounter the uncomfortable truth that it was never just those things for any of us.
It is the seeding, the quality of sleep, the stomach pain we had in the octas, and temperature of the air, and in simpler words – chance. The nature of our activity is that we are all the victims of a million uncontrollables just hoping that if we sacrifice enough, we don’t have to be. Whether because of the coronavirus or the coin flip, every team except for one has to endure a conclusion to their career that they neither wanted nor foresaw. It is not the victory or the inability to guarantee it that is at stake. Because that is never what it was about either.
Third, I accordingly want to suggest to the class of 2020, that it is also not about your last debate. If the NDT is in fact canceled, you will have to deal with the painful realization that that moment is now behind you. That realization is also one that I know to be crushing. Regardless of when it happened, who was there, and what happened in the debate, we all deserve a final round where someone stands and claps for us. There are many people amongst you in this community, myself included, who know what the open wound of a silent conclusion feels like. There are also many of us who know what it feels like to have a last debate without knowing it and to have to look back and add grandeur to a situation that in its original happening possessed none. The journey of superimposing a conclusion onto a moment you didn’t know was one is tough and requires a great degree of revisionist creativity, but it is entirely possible, and many have done it. What you might find in the process is that it was never that single debate that mattered either. And whatever your last debate may be, know that it matters as much as the one that it could have been.
Finally, to the community in our larger parts, I want to suggest that with the knowledge that it was not a singular debate or chance at victory that was most painfully lost in this disaster, what we owe this year’s debaters is not just one last stab at victory.
After losing my final debate on a 3-0 to the bracket, here is what mattered: holding my best friend and beloved teammate when he lost his last debate the morning after. Sitting drunkenly and tiredly with the people who know me best and watching debates we had the audacity to boozily criticize even though we weren’t good enough to be in them. Laughing with people I didn’t know all that well who wanted to buy me a drink. Not paying for a single thing I drank that entire Monday. My last team dinner at an only OK Mexican restaurant in Kansas with the freshmen who came to that NDT with us to scout and the coaches I had come to cherish and depend on. Being hugged, over and over again by people I’d never hugged before. The emails that I re-read when I feel lost from many people saying “what you did mattered to me.” The tears I cried on behalf of fellow competitors who I wanted more for. And more than anything, the chance to sit in a hotel room that smelled painstakingly of boys at three in the morning with many of the students in my class. That moment gave us the opportunity to say goodbye to each other, and in doing so, recognize that each sacrifice we made was validation that no matter how it ended, we were all really, really lucky to have each other and to have something that we were capable of loving that terribly much.
Amidst all the competitive vim and the pomp of the affair, I believe this is what the NDT is about – not your last debate, but the moments after it. Moments in which people who know what you’ve lost remind you that you have not lost your place amongst them. It is the collection of those first few hours of being a “former debater,” that makes the NDT special because you are surrounded only by people who already know or will someday come to know that very unique ache. It is the place in debate where I believe we best care for each other, see each other, and feel belonging – the thing that I am inclined to postulate is what most of us are really after in the first place.
So to the debate community writ-large, I want to suggest that we owe this class above all else is not just an NDT, but vulnerability, compassion, recognition, belonging, and a ceremonious inauguration into our imperfect society of former debaters. What debaters choose to do is rare and it is special. It takes great courage, discipline, humility, and honesty. Those qualities and virtues do not dissipate when you cross the threshold, and if this year’s class cannot be invited into their next stage in this community in all of the glory and raucousness of a Monday night at the NDT, they deserve everything we can give them in its stead.
We owe them a venmo-ed drink or two on us, a verbal outpouring of recognition, and a nice email in lieu of a firm hug at the very least, but we desperately also owe them the maturity and thoughtfulness to acknowledge that it was never about the tournament, the last debate, or the win. It’s about knowing in those first seconds when your debater career is now behind you, that the place you belong in the debate community is not.
To all of the students who will or will not debate at this year’s NDT, what you’ve already done cannot be minimized by what otherwise might have been possible. It’s all chance, all luck, all fate if that’s what you believe in. The only thing that’s not is the people who are standing there to clap for you when it ends.
Loudly and with joy from our separate corners of this country, we will all still be here -- applauding you all the way home.
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I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.