Sarcasm, Ludicrity, and Angst: Father Earth, 3

By the end of 9th grade, when we talked to Coach Blackwood about the losses, it was a little different. After asking what the other team argued and how we responded, instead of telling us a better way to respond, he'd just nod and remind us: “What you think you said, and what the judge heard you say aren’t always the same thing. You’re thinking along the right lines, but you’re not getting it across clearly.”

And we didn’t know how to be clearer – so we tried saying it louder. So we’d be in these debates, yelling at the judge. Paul’s voice still hadn’t changed, but mine was now changing. So you can imagine me yelling my arguments punctuated by random high-pitched cracks.

Coach Blackwood would periodically remind us: You guys are going to be good. And then he’d tell us a story about his debating days, in which he or another member of his squad performed some outlandish antic, or brilliant maneuver, or incredible blunder in a debate round. It made us feel that our screw-ups had potential in them. That it wasn’t just a matter of fixing the mistake and thereby attaining to a mistake-free but bland competence. Something more exciting: the idea that in the very screw-up itself lay a better way of doing things than anybody else could do – at least, a better way for me to be. My screw-ups had transcendent potential. My personal and unique style of debating was beginning to emerge.

There was a heavy layer of cynicism and sarcasm in my style back then. I was, after all, a teenager. I would say things like: “The very ludicrity of my opponent’s argument is beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend.” More than one judge informed me that there is no such word as ludicrity. Yet underneath that sarcasm was a faith in the basic worth and dignity of every human life. I always argued from a fundamental assumption that one starving Somalian or Bangladeshi was every bit as bad as one starving American. Sure, I was teenager. I was also a Unitarian Universalist.

I was creatively trying out argument strategies for what resonated with me. Paul was -- reasonably -- thinking more about what would resonate with the judge. We would get to squabbling sometimes, and Coach Blackwood would tell us how much our different styles complemented each other. “Your differences are what makes you two such a good team.”

By eleventh-grade, Paul and I and the other teams on the Central High debate squad met during the week with Coach Blackwood for general strategy sessions and practice rounds. But on the week-end, when the tournament itself started, he didn’t have anything more to advise us on specific arguments for specific rounds. Before each round, he’d just clap our shoulders and say, “be tough.” And off we’d go to our next round.

We were winning a lot now. And, frustrating as those years of losing records had been, when winning came, I found myself with niggling doubts about the whole zero-sum competition thing. It was a lot more fun to be sarcastic to my opponents when I usually lost to them. Now that I was usually winning, I began to feel some sympathy for their efforts.

It all came to a head at the state championship tournament: a grueling week-end where the 8 best teams in the state debated each other round-robin: seven rounds, every one of them hard fought. After those seven rounds, the two teams with the best records would face each other again in a final round with the Georgia State Championship – and a trip to the national debate tournament – on the line.

Paul and I made into that championship round. Before the round, Paul and I were waiting for the seven judges to arrive and get settled. Suddenly, I had a moment of existential angst about the very nature of competition. I turned to Paul and said, “I don’t know why those guys, the other team, shouldn’t go to Nationals. Do I want to keep them from something they want?”

Paul just stared at me, and then, without a word, left the room. He went to get Coach Blackwood, who came in to talk sense into me.

“What’s up?” he asked me.

I told him I thought the other team deserved to go to Nationals. "They want to go. Why don’t we let them?”

Blackwood looked thoughtful for a moment, then he said. “I want to go to Nationals. I think you’d have a really good time, too, but if you don’t think that counts, do it for me.”

I said, “Oh. OK.”

Two hours later the round was over and the judges had submitted their ballots and Paul and I had squeaked out a 4 to 3 win. And we did have a great time at Nationals.

Actually, what I remember best about Michael Blackwood is the sound of his laugh. Funny how that’s often the thing we do remember best about people long gone from our lives: their laugh. It might do for us to remember that we ourselves will be remembered for that – and laugh heartily and often.

Here’s to you, Michael Blackwood. Thanks, Coach.

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This is 4 of 5 of "Father Earth"
Previous: Father Earth 2: Coach
Beginning: A Prayer for the Fathers

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