JANE RINEHART began the best and worst year of her teaching career in a familiar pose: hands on hips, lips pinched in a downward twist, one eyebrow cocked above the other. Seven kids slumped at their desks and scowled back at her. She only knew one of themEbony Rose, a gangly sixteen-year-old with a ghetto accent so thick people often had to ask him to repeat himself three or four times before they could understand what he'd said. The rest were strangers who wound up in her beginning debate class because the new hires in the school's counseling office were, like so many administrators in Kansas City, Missouri's notoriously dysfunctional school district, inept or lazy or both.
The previous spring she and her team of debaters canvassed Central High School in search of new recruits. They looked everywherein the cavernous lunchroom, the noisy study halls, the history classes full of bored teens scratching answers onto photocopied worksheets. They even checked the windowless room where cutups sit for hours on end to atone for their sins. ("In an inner-city school, in-school suspension is one of the best places to find good debaters," Rinehart often said.) They tracked down tips from fellow students and teachers who had learned years ago to steer smart kids to Rinehart's program, one of the few bright spots in a school where more than half the incoming freshmen drop out before their senior year. Within a fewweeks, she hand-delivered a list of eighteen prospective debaters to the counseling office well before the cutoff date.
But they lost it. So she turned in another. She even offered to type the names into the school's computer system herself. "No, no," one of the counselors told her. "We can handle it."
They couldn't. When Rinehart opened up her schedule packet a few days before the start of school, she found that not one of her recruits had been enrolled in beginning debate. When she brought this to the attention of her assistant principal, the administrator shrugged. "They're new," her boss said of the school's counselors. "What do you expect?"
As Rinehart sized up her meager prospects, a girl with long, skinny braids threw open the door and marched two steps into the room. Rinehart turned and stared her down.
"This ain't no required class, is it?" the girl asked.
"This isn't any?" Rinehart replied without hesitation.
The girl's shoulders dropped. "Do we gotta take this class?!"
"You don't gotta take anything."
"I mean ..." the girl sputtered.
"This isn't a mandated class, if that's what you want to know."
"That's what I wanted to know."
"But if you only go through life doing the minimum," Rinehart said as the girl plopped herself into one of the twenty empty desks, "the minimum is all you'll get out of life."
RINEHART CROSSED HER ARMS and glanced around her classroom, which, only two hours into the school year, looked as if a gale had blown through and tossed around all the desks and books and files. Room 109, the one-window headquarters for Central's debate program, contains too much bustle to be as orderly as a typical high school room. Even before the school year started, with summer's free days dwindling, kids flitted in and out of Rinehart's domain to seek advice on the cases they were building for the coming season or simply to escape the bleak streets of Kansas City's East Side.
Rinehart moved to the dry-erase board, uncapped a purple marker, andwrote, "Resolved: That the federal government should substantially increase public mental health services for mental health care in the United States." She turned to face the students, who were stretched so far back in their chairs they were nearly horizontal. Each kid grudgingly wore a baggy version of the school's mandatory uniforms: khaki or navy blue pants with navy blue or white shirts.
"I'm Mrs. Rinehart," she said cheerily, trying to shake off her bad mood. "This is the debate class. You are the beginners. You are the novices. You are the hope for the future. You are the ones who are going to win trophies like this." She gestured toward a handsome copper chalice rising from an old audiovisual cart stuffed with books and papers and plastic cups full of pencils and pens. "We run with the big dogs."
A few of the kids chuckled at this short white woman who stood before them in her prim silk blouse and matching marigold skirt, trying to talk trash.
"We do," she insisted, hands back on her hips.
She rattled off an abbreviated list of accomplishments: the trophy case near the principal's office stuffed with shiny metal; the victories at out-of-state tournaments; the scholarships. "Last year one of my top debaters, Donnell, got a full scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa because of his debate skills," she said. "All he has to do is argue in college and they pay for him to go."
"I want some of that," said a girl with bright red hair sprouting from the top of her crown.
"Yeah," Rinehart said. "All he has to do is argue with attitude."
She paused to let that sink in. Even for cocky kids, it was difficult to fathom such success at a school like Central. Over the past half century, the school had become a nationally recognized symbol for the despair of urban education. It was the flash point of Kansas City's riots in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s the school's security guards carried handguns as they roamed the halls. Through the 1980s and '90s, ABC, 60 Minutes, scores of newspapers, and even Jesse Jackson paid visits to Centralall to tell virtually the same stories of failure or slim hope. And then, in 2001, as if for final emphasis, Missouri education officials put the school on alert, declaring it "academically deficient."
The students stared at Rinehart blankly. "At this point," she continued, "if you don't know anything about debate, don't worry about it. That's my problem. If you don't know anything about it in six months, then maybe it'll be your problem. But for now it's my problem."
She told the students to form a circle, and they sluggishly scooted their desks across the tile floor. "Debate is basically arguing," she said, sitting down, crossing her legs off to the side, and leaning forward on the desk. "And this is what we're going to be arguing this year." She cocked her head toward the board and again read aloud the resolution to improve mental health services in the United States, the topic selected by coaches from across the country for the year ahead.
"What does that mean?" she asked, facing the kids again. "What is mental health?"
The teens blinked back at her.
Finally one boy offered, "Health is healthy."
"Your brain," added another.
"People who have mental health problems, what do we call them?" Rinehart asked.
After another long pause, one student looked up and said, in a bored voice, "Mentally ill."
"Don't we have some not-so-nice words for them?" Rinehart asked.
Silence. Then a skinny boy with cornrows muttered, "Retarded."
"Okay," she said. "Retarded. What else?"
"Come on!" Rinehart said, waving her hands in the air. "Crazy! Loony! Insane! Don't we have expressions? Off his rocker! Mad as a hatter!"
A few of the kids looked around at each other and raised their eyebrows.
"Statistics say 85 percent of the public is mentally ill," Rinehart continued, unfazed. "Don't you think we should help these people?"
Apparently, none did. Again, blank stares.
"Our job," she said, "if we're in a debate round, and we're on the affirmative team, we have to figure out how to help people who are mentally ill. How are we going to help them?"
She shifted in her chair. "Let's start with attention deficit disorder, becausemost of us know someone on Ritalin," she said. "Let's say we're the affirmative team and we've got lots of ADD kids we want to help. We decide we're gonna give them some Ritalin. But if you're on the negative, your job is to poke holes in that plan."
"What about the side effects?" one of the students, Phillip White, said suddenly, in a soft, high-pitched voice that betrayed the hard facade he was trying to maintain. All morning he'd leered at Rinehart from under the hood of his navy blue sweatshirt, the way his father might stare down fellow inmates at a penitentiary back in Phillip's home state of Ohio.
"Ooooh!" Rinehart said, her eyes widening. "You think there might be side effects?"
"There's always side effects," he said, sitting up a little straighter.
"What are some of them?" she asked.
"I dunno," he replied. "Paranoid. Tired."
"What happens in the long run if you keep taking the pills?" Ebony Rose blurted.
"Addiction," Phillip answered.
"Yeah," Ebony said, leaning back with his fingers laced behind his head.
Rinehart's eyes scanned her tiny class. "That's a debate, guys," she said quietly, as though she were spilling a well-guarded secret. "That's basically what you guys have just done. You've had a mini little debate. That's all it is. It's a game. Success in life is a game."
"It hard," Ebony said, shuffling in his seat. "The rules are hard. The game is hard." Unlike the other kids, Ebony had some experience with debate. For three weeks during the summer, he sat through hours and hours of lessons at beginning debate camp at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He was the only one of Rinehart's recruits who made it to class, even though his schedule, put together by the bumbling counselors, said he should be in aerobics.
"Yes, it's hard." Rinehart nodded. "But it's worth it when you make the other team cry. You're gonna be so proud of yourself." She turned to one of her varsity debaters, who had sneaked in after the bell because, owing to an administrative mix-up in the district's central office, she had nowhere else to go. "How many teams did we make cry last year?"
"Three," the senior replied, glancing nonchalantly at her long bright red fingernails.
At this, Phillip leaned forward and removed his hood. A few other kids straightened up as well. "You will be amazed at how much you're going to learn in the next six months," Rinehart said.
She started breaking down the structure of a debate round, explaining each of its eight speeches, its cross-examination periodsthe question-and-answer portions of debates commonly known as cross-x. But a few minutes into the lecture, the students slid back into their supine poses and glazed expressions.
"I can tell you guys are freaking out," she said.
She got up and rooted through a tall gray file cabinet until she found a thin stack of photocopied papers. She passed them out to the students. The kids looked at them. The sheets read "NEWSLETTER" in big bold letters along the left-hand side and contained two short articles about Humpty Dumpty falling off a wall, one titled "South Side Gangs Continue to Play Chicken," the other, "Dumpty Boy Found Dead by Wall."
Ebony cringed at his copy. "This is a joke, right?"
Standing between the encircled desks, Rinehart began reading aloud in a faux newscaster voice: "Cripts and Bloods led by Little Boy Blue and Little Red Riding Hood have been terrorizing citizens on the South Side." Then she switched into the role of Little Boy Blue, reading in what might be the worst imitation of a thug the kids had ever heard. "Yeah," she groused. "I've pushed a few eggs, but I was just playing. I would never really push an egg hard, or over the wall or anything. Man, it's just innocent fun."
The students looked back at her slack-jawed, not sure whether to be offended or to burst out in laughter. "Nobody's even laughing," she said. "I mean, come on!"
She continued through both stories. The first seemed to suggest that Humpty Dumpty had jumped off the wall in response to a dare. The second quoted a police officer, Lucky Ducky, as saying, "I suspect foul play."
Apparently, the residents of Mother Goose Village had been receiving pamphlets from a radical group known as the E.G.G.B.E.A.T.E.R.S., membersof which had been convicted for the murders of Chicken Little, Half-Chick, and the Gingerbread Man.
"The only good egg is a boiled egg," Rinehart continued in the gruff voice of one of the E.G.G.B.E.A.T.E.R.S. "That Dumpty family has been uppity ever since they made friends with the king. Well, let's see what the king and his men can do now. I hate eggs."
She looked up at the class. "Okay," she said. "We have evidence that Humpty was pushed. And we have evidence that it was an accident."
She divided the class into two groups and passed out blank sheets of paper, which she instructed them to fold in half. On one side, she wanted them to list evidence suggesting an accident; on the other, facts indicating foul play.
Ebony volunteered to be secretary for his group. Phillip did the same for the opposing team. The kids huddled around Ebony, scanning the short columns of text. Finally a boy in cornrows offered, "There was a handprint."
"Handprint." Ebony nodded, writing it down. Minutes passed with no more evidence. Ebony tapped his pen against the page. Rinehart strode by and glanced over their shoulders. "You have a brain, too," she said. "Not every argument has to come from the articles."
"Little Boy Blue pushed him," someone finally suggested.
"And Little Red Riding Hood," another said. "She in it, too. They was cousins."
"Hood and Blue."
"They was a tag team."
"They was cousins."
Now both teams were chattering away, building their cases. Rinehart paced between them, smiling. "You guys are doing great," she said. "You're already doing advanced debate work. You're cutting cards. You're writing arguments. This is the name of the game."
When the teams had completed their lists, Rinehart lined them up standing opposite each other. She fished a quarter out of her pocket. "Call it in the air," she said, lobbing the coin and watching it clink across the floor.
"What part of 'call it in the air' didn't you understand?"
She tried again. Ebony called heads and lost. Phillip's team chose to argue that Humpty Dumpty had been killed. After Rinehart laid out the rules, the kids took turns arguing both sides, getting more and more excited as the game proceeded.
"In the article it says Little Boy Blue was pushing eggs," one girl said, shuffling her feet and chopping her hands in the air. "So maybe he pushed Humpty Dumpty a little too hard."
By the time it was Phillip's turn, he could barely contain himself. "It was Jack that did it," he said, stomping his foot and punching the air. "See, he was part of them E.G.G.B.E.A.T.E.R.S. And his mama said she didn't like no eggs. She say the only good egg is boiled egg. So it was murder. And Jack did it."
Ebony delivered the last speech for his team. "I ain't got nothing to say," he said, shrugging and glancing coolly to the side. "First of all, y'all didn't have proof. Second, eggs don't have hands. How you even know Humpty Dumpty was on the wall? I mean, he's an egg. Eggs don't even got arms."
"Nah, man," Phillip yelled, spinning around and jumping up and down. "Humpty Dumpty do have arms!"
"Where's the proof?!" Ebony demanded.
Phillip and his team huddled for the final argument. One of his partners pointed at a line in the fake newsletter and Phillip clenched his fist, grinning at the other team. He got up to close it out. "First of all, this is a fairy tale, right?" he said, smiling broadly. "So in a fairy tale, almost anything can happen. It says in the article that Humpty Dumpty was in a creative writing class. That he got teased in there. So that proves it. Eggs in creative writing class has to have hands."
Just then the principal's voice crackled across the PA systemmorning announcements, the end of class.
"All right, guys," Rinehart said. "Wasn't that fun? Welcome to debate. You guys are now officially debaters."
Copyright © 2006 by Joe Miller