Senior Year without the NDT
By: Genevieve Hackman
The past week and a half have felt like the Twilight zone. In some ways, none of the bad stuff feels real yet. I hear the words that people are saying but they don’t resonate. Everything has moved so quickly around me, but I feel like I am walking through water. My thoughts are slow and interrupted halfway through, and although I am going through the motions I can’t honestly say I remember any of what happened in the first couple of days of the pandemic. In the last few days, I have been able to catch a breath, process the thoughts, and feel the feelings.
I’m heartbroken that I lost my last NDT. So many words have been said about the value of the NDT and all of them are right. The NDT is a time to come together as a community, a time to feel the power that debate gives you for the last time, and a time to mourn and celebrate your career with the only people in the world who could possibly understand what it has meant to you. For me, it was the suddenness of the end that really, really got me. I know the NDT was soon, but I thought I had three more weeks of late nights in the library or debate office, of practice speeches and card cutting, of strategizing and being a part of the most incredible team I could have hoped for. One of the most powerful parts of debate for me has always been the trips to and from a tournament: hours-long car rides and sleep-deprived strategy sessions mixed in with delirious jokes and tense conversations about what is to come. These are the memories that make my whole body feel warm when I live in them. I am immensely sad that I do not get the last trip to treasure as a memory for the rest of my life.
I spent awhile reflecting on what I wanted to say in this post. We have spent a lot of time as a team joking around about everyone having to move through the stages of grief in light of the information. Day one, everyone denied it was a problem. The outbreak wouldn’t be that bad, there is no way they would cancel. Then we were all mad. Every single thing said on the internet, whether I agreed with it or not, pissed me off. My first draft of this post was just, “the discourse fucking sucks.” That was all I had. Then, bargaining. Online NDT? Delay the NDT? Figure something, anything out? I settled into what I expected to be a lengthy depressive state pretty quickly upon returning from our team’s last trip to Vegas. I had the good fortune of some pretty incredible friends and coaches who had countless comforting words, comforting food, and finally comforting silence to keep me company in what felt like an unbeatable wave of sadness.
Unexpectedly, I would say I am in a place of acceptance now. It is over. Seven years (more for some!) of the best, most frustrating, most rewarding activity I could imagine, and it is over. I had no idea when I was deciding in September if this was going to be my senior year that the stakes of that decision were my last NDT. I was tempted to renege, back off and do it all again. But as I thought about going through the motions one more year, it felt wrong. I didn’t want another year of tournaments. I wanted the chance to say goodbye to this activity.
In the time since the news, which feels like a decade but has been only one week, I have thought a lot about what debate meant to me. It has been very little consolation for losing my last tournament, given the anticipation and preparation for what was to come, but there is so much debate has given me that has nothing to do with this NDT. If you’re anything like me, your minutes-before-sleep, dreams, and drifting off in the daytime is full of things you wish you had done differently. One different sentence, a different card, a different strategic choice. I haven’t opened the flows from my last debate or watched the tape of my 2NR because I know I will have to spend sleepless nights with the words I didn’t say echoing in my head. However, there is one regret that I keep circling back to: that there were times when I let debate be reduced to a matter of going through the motions.
There are times when debate just doesn’t click – that’s natural. It is such a rigorous and time-consuming activity, there have to be days when you take a breath and just do what you know you have to do. There will inevitably be days when the things you have to do are boring and hard. When the research isn’t clicking, a concept doesn’t make sense to you, when a W against a specific team feels like it keeps slipping through your fingers by the smallest of margins. One of my coaches calls it ‘being in the suck’ – just the sucky, irritating part of debate. The thing I am describing – going through the motions – is different. It’s half-assing the presets at a regional, showing up to team meetings to stare at a wall, or going to the office to do nothing productive. You are there, but you aren’t doing anything. When I look back at my years in debate, I think there were too many times that I was just going through the motions. At the time, it seemed inconsequential. Maybe it meant I didn’t live up to my full potential, but I was tired, so tired and knew that there was going to be another tournament. Another time when I could debate, and maybe that time I could be well rested, maybe then I’ll feel more prepared. The stars will align, and it will be better than it was today and then, then I will debate with all of the fire that I have on my best days. I regret that so much. There is nothing that can replicate the feeling of that fire and this time…there weren’t more debates. Sometimes, I don’t think I could help just going through the motions. This year has been a wave of unexpected stress and change and I can’t say my mental health has been at its peak. But there were many times that I think I could have, should have, would have been better, and those are the times that are at the forefront of my memory.
So, I think that I wanted the takeaways from this post to be two-fold. First, I want to encourage everyone who still has time in debate to catch themselves when they are just going through the motions. I don’t want to make the mistake of suggesting that is always bad, but rather that it is a thing to reflect upon. Take a second, think about why you feel the way you do and what the best path forward is. I think a lot of the time, the best path forward will be treating every debate like it’s the finals of the NDT. Hindsight is 20/20, and I’m sure this is different for everyone, but my hindsight says that I would feel a lot better if I had done that. Times are changing. You really can’t be sure when your last debate will be, and the value of debating each one like it’s your last is so high compared to the costs in retrospect. Every debate has the potential to spark that fire, and if this one doesn’t, then think about what you can do differently so that it does. I know I had a tendency to blame the opponent/judge/time of day/state/thing I had for breakfast/side of the bed I work up on for debates I didn’t enjoy (don’t get me wrong; I also did a healthy dose of berating myself), but if I could do it again, I would think about what I could do to change that for the next debate. What modification of strategy, trying new things, writing new args, etc could I do to make the next debate feel better for me? I know that this message - live life to the fullest! – will make me sound like a little bit of a broken record, but it’s worth saying again and it’s worth hearing again on the chance that this is the time it means something to you.
The second takeaway is to forgive yourself. Part of the reason I wrote this was to force myself to move past my focus on a single thought – that I didn’t do enough – and move on to forgiveness. I am forgiving myself for not treating every debate like my last until it became conspicuous that it might be true. There were a lot of things left on my to-do list for the NDT. There were a lot of times, especially in the past months, that I have convinced myself to go through the motions. This is my public statement that that…is okay. I am still the kick-ass, confident debater that I remember from the best days and the best debates. To anyone who has been feeling the same about the way things ended for them: it’s okay for you too! Your best debates weren’t errors at the margins, they were the culmination of years of incredibly hard work. No matter when they came in your career, they are still valuable, incredible demonstrations of everything we have put into the activity.
I’m certain everyone is experiencing different things right now. I’m sure that for many people, these words won’t help, and I don’t want to suggest that the ‘senior’s experience’ is universal. There also has been such limited time to process. So much is going on in the world that it could be months before we get the chance to feel the full weight of the end of debate. Maybe I’ll revise my opinions then. But this is my two cents on what debate has felt like for me for the past week. To all of the other seniors: I admire you all endlessly, have constantly aspired to be better because of you, and I wish we could have done it one more time.
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I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.