Literacy Narrative

By Alyssa Rull

As I walked up to the microphone, hands shaky and throat dry, I placed my binder full of information on the podium and looked out to the audience. All I could see was the judges' panel, my other peers in the audience also dressed in business outfits, and my teacher sitting in the front row getting ready to judge me and grade me. I swiftly took my speech out of the binder and held it on the podium. Clearing my throat and putting on my best presentation voice, I started to explain to the audience my partner’s and my position. Even though I had written an essay that I was very proud of, I had no clue what the other team would have to respond to us with. All the years of middle school and early high school writing had prepared me for this moment. I would later look back and realize that my writing journey has been impacted heavily by my junior year debate, and how we had to extensively research, prepare for each side, and present to an audience our debates.

It was August of 2020, my junior year of high school and I walked into my last class of the day which was AP Literature. I had heard of the big debate project that students in previous years had to do. The idea of having to debate in front of other people scared me.

“Good afternoon juniors,” said my AP Literature teacher Ms. Beck. “I have heard wonderful things about your class and how gifted you all are as students. We will be covering many things in this class and at a fast pace since it is a college-level class. However, in addition to the required materials that are given by the College Board, we will also be preparing for your debates that will take place in December this year.”

“I am so terrified to do debates,” I said to my best friend, Kylia, who was sitting next to me. “Last year when we watched the debates as sophomores, I could barely even follow what was going on. This seems way too complicated for me.” Kylia gave me a look that showed she agreed as we focused our attention back on Ms. Beck who was reading through the syllabus.

A week or two had passed and we were back in class when Ms. Beck started to give us more information on these debates and what they would look like.

She began, “Your debates will be a project you work on throughout this whole semester with a partner I will assign you. I want you to learn to work with someone you don’t always talk to. You will also be given an opposing team by me. I am going to pair you all up with someone I feel will challenge both sides. Now I know what you’re all thinking, ‘can we pick the debate topic’?. The answer is yes and no. You and your opponents will get together and come up with three hot topics that you feel you could debate on either side. I will choose which of the three debate topics you will have, as well as which side you will be on. I don’t care if you have your personal beliefs for the topic, you are going to learn to research and write about something you disagree with.”

This is what caught everyone’s attention in the room. Personally, I am pretty good at looking at two sides of a topic without much bias. However, I have known the other kids in my class for about three years now, and I could tell you that most of these students would throw a fit if they did not agree with what side they were given.

The next time we were in class, we received our debate partners. There had been this guy I talked to a bit over the summer in my class and I internally wished that he would end up being my partner, but I was far too nervous to ever say that out loud. However, Ms. Beck was going to pair us up with someone who we would likely work well with, and from what I knew about him, we had similar work maybe it could happen!

“Hello everyone,” said Ms. Beck, “I know you all have been anxious to find out who your partners are and today I will tell you.”

She rambled on about some other information for debates that we needed to know, but I didn’t listen. I was too clouded in my own thoughts to pay attention to what she was saying. I mean how could I not be? This had been the leading thought in my brain for the past few weeks! Who I get paired up with now was going to determine how the rest of my semester was going to go.

After some time trying to think through the nonsensical battle inside my brain, the list of partners was up on the screen. I think my face looked like a ghost as I saw his name next to mine. ‘Jonah and Alyssa’. “There’s no way...” I thought to myself. I looked over at Jonah, the guy from the summer, and saw him smiling at me. I could have probably fainted from the shock if it weren’t for Kylia next to me nudging me saying that she was happy about who her partner was (it was another one of our friends). My stream of swirling thoughts was interrupted by Ms. Beck speaking to the class.

“Okay now, I want you all to get together with your partners and your opponents and discuss three topics that you all feel like you could debate on both sides too. Write them down on a piece of paper with your names on it and turn it into me by the end of class.”

Jonah and I found each other and made small talk while we found our opponents. I once again could have probably fainted when I saw that the girl we were opposing was a new girl who had been on the debate team at her old school. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought to myself. I don’t know if my teacher saw more potential in me than I saw in myself because she grouped me with some of the smartest people in my class.

“Hey guys! This is a pretty solid group,” said Zach, one of our opponents.

Erika, the new girl, responded, “Yeah, I’m really excited about this project!”

RullI think Jonah responded to them with some sort of comment that matched the positive energy they were giving us. I wouldn’t know, I was trying to gain my composure, so I didn’t appear like a nervous wreck.

After some time of all of us going back and forth on topics we could debate on either way, we landed on the death penalty, gun control, and double jeopardy. We turned our page to Ms. Beck and waited until the next class to find out which one was going to be picked.

The next class period we walked in eager to find out what topic we’d spend the next few months researching and preparing to debate about. After a small speech by Ms. Beck about not throwing a fit about your topic, we focused our gaze on the screen to see that we were given the topic of gun control. “This shouldn’t be too bad,” I thought. “My dad knows a lot about guns and my brother was in the Army, so I can just ask them about anything I don’t know.” Jonah and I both knew we could debate this topic either way, so we got to work and started researching. We were given a few assignments by Ms. Beck that we had to complete. None of them were too hard, just time-consuming.

There were several things I did not know about when it came to guns, and I also thought it would make a good source and story if I talked to my brother who was the squad sniper for his platoon in the Army. For months we gathered information online, from books, from veterans, and from other people who had more first-person experience with guns than us. Then after all this time researching, it came time to write our introduction speeches, which had to be captivating and convincing. The way that the debates were set up, one partner would do the introduction speech, and then the other would do two response speeches that had to be constructed 5 minutes after the opponents made their speech. Jonah and I concluded that I would be better at the prepared introduction speech, and he would be better at the speech we had to make up on the spot. Because of this, I started writing with every technique I could remember from my years of writing prior to this, and for each speech (since we did not yet know which position we were going to be taking on the debate). We would find this information out two weeks prior to the debate.

As the time for debates grew closer and closer, I started to get nervous. I tried to divert my thinking every time that happened and just thought about what else I could do to prepare even more. We had created a binder that had dividers in it, with each section labeled with things like, “introductory speech, rebuttal outline format, second rebuttal outline format, facts and figures, sources, testimonials, stories, additional arguments, possible arguments from opposing side” and so much more. Not only did I not want to make a fool of myself in front of everyone, but I wanted to win the debate too.

It wasn’t much later we were in class and Ms. Beck had finally revealed to us what side of the topic we would be on. We waited patiently for her to pass out the paper to us that would read either “negative or affirmative”. The affirmative side would mean we would be arguing for the topic that we had narrowed it down to, which was “AR-15’s should be banned in the US”. If we were on the negative side, we would be arguing against the statement. As she came around with our paper on it, we saw a big red word that read “negative” around it. We would be arguing that AR-15's should not be banned.

“This is perfect,” I thought to myself, “I can use my stories and information from my brother in our speech for both the ethos and pathos appeal!” Now that we finally know what side we’d be on, we can even further research our side and fill our debate binder even more.

A few weeks had gone by and before we knew it, debate day was here. I walked into the auditorium with my eyes almost glued shut. I had barely slept the night before because of my nerves. I walked in to see the audience chairs filled with parents, friends, peers, younger and older students, and my teacher front and center. We were the first debate group to go. I tried to go over my speech in my head, but the nervousness made it impossible to focus. Before I could process what was going on, it was time to do our debate and since I had the introduction speech, I would be the very first person of the year to start debates.

RullAs we got up to the stage, I took my binder with my speech and confidently walked up to the podium. I took one look at the audience which was filled with faces and started to read with a voice that told the people, ‘Listen to me!’ “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” I read. I continued reading my speech and when I was finally done, I could tell from the look on the judges' faces who were people that I knew, that they were surprised. I don’t think they knew that I had this in me. I have always been pretty good at public speaking, but it isn’t something that comes up in topic much, so nobody really knew that. I went back to sit at the table Jonah was sitting at, and we got ready for the opponent's introductory speech. While they were speaking, we furiously took notes and wrote down things that they had gotten wrong, or that we had a rebuttal to. After they had finished, we had five minutes to gather the information for our rebuttal that Jonah would present. The five minutes went up quickly, and Jonah walked with a confident air up to the podium. He also read a very convincing rebuttal that we put together and once again left the judges shocked with what we had come up with. Eventually, we finished the debate, and we walked away from it feeling confident. I walked down from the stage and congratulated our opponents on doing a good job. They did likewise. Jonah and I thanked them, then walked out of the building to decompress after all that stress. RullWe spent months and months preparing and researching a topic for it to be over in 20 minutes. It was a strange feeling but one that I will never forget. I felt relieved but also exhilarated. I was always a good student, but being able to showcase all the work you have put into something was surprisingly rewarding. The next time we were in class, we were all eager to hear who had won each debate. There were several judges and each one picked the side who they believed had presented a stronger case. For the last time, we all focused our attention on the screen. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw ``Alyssa and Jonah” underneath the winning side. We won! Jonah and I exchanged extremely happy remarks to each other and relieved some of the stressful moments that made it all worth it. 

The whole debate process was one that I will never forget. From the research process to the writing process to the presentation, my literacy journey grew exponentially. Not only did my work improve, but my mindset about the whole writing process improved. I no longer saw it as a chore, but rather a way to present things in a new, original, and appealing way. I was able to use my creative abilities to show other’s ideas that hadn’t been explored before. Overall, it molded me into a student that takes their time on everything, because I know that it will pay off in the end.

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