Finding Their Voices
Encouraging struggling students to argue may seem a debatable strategy. But there's no arguing with success.

By Karen Houppert
Sunday, August 26, 2007


Heads bent close together, Jermol's braids knock up against Iggy's Mohawk as they map out their evening. They whisper. They argue. They reach an agreement.

Then, with a cocky smile, Jermol, one of the Baltimore Urban Debate League's hottest high school debaters, stands up and begins to speak. Fast.

"In 1999, the Sentencing Project, which keeps track of incarceration rates by race and offense, reported that 32 percent of African American males between the ages of 20 and 29 are in contact with the criminal justice system as compared to 6 percent for white males and 8 percent for Latino males," says Jermol, quoting from The Warrior Method: A Program for Rearing Healthy Black Boys, a 2001 book by Raymond Winbush, a professor at Morgan State's Institute for Urban Research in Baltimore. "Based on current rates of incarceration, the U.S. Justice Department estimates that 28 percent of black males will enter state or federal prisons during their lifetime."

Speaking with the rapid-fire speed typical of competitive debaters, who have only eight minutes to cram all their arguments into an opening statement, Jermol waves his hand in front of his stomach like a metronome that keeps his pace so swift as to make his words almost unintelligible. He spits out facts about the nation's prison system and black men's disproportionate place in it. "Sixty-seven percent of prison inmates were of color, compared to 65 percent in 1990, with African Americans making up 46 percent of state and federal prisoners," he says.

"If this trend continues, by the year 2015 half of all black men in America will be in contact with the criminal justice system via incarceration, probation, parole or indictment."

After eight minutes of Jermol firing facts, figures, quotes, sources and assertions at his competitors, a timer goes off. He stops mid-sentence -- and grins.

He plops down at a school desk too small for his lanky frame and sinks into a deep slouch, his super-skinny self nearly buried in the hooded sweatshirt he never removes.

His debate partner, Iggy, thumps him on the back and the two 17-year-olds from Baltimore size up their Midwestern competition.

Across the mostly empty classroom where this national debate tournament is taking place, two students from Ronald Reagan College Preparatory High School in Milwaukee seem a little stunned at this presentation by Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School debate team. Sixteen-year-old Angela Jones, a junior at Reagan, simply looks at Jermol and says, after a moment, "Whoa."

The teens are participating in the annual, highly competitive J.B. Fuqua Urban Debate League Novice Celebration in Atlanta, where 14 of the top teams from around the country have convened for the season-culminating competition. The Reagan students came prepared to debate the official resolution -- a proposal to increase young people's national service in organizations such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America and the armed services. They have been researching and debating this very topic all year. They have tons of material about volunteerism sorted into files, placed in rubber bins and dragged halfway across the country on a plane from Milwaukee. They have been eating, sleeping and dreaming "volunteerism" for months, debating both the pros and cons of this issue at competitions across the Midwest.

They know how to argue it upside down and inside and out.

But the Douglass students have come at it sideways, through a barely visible chink in the armor. They have departed from the text. They have chosen an off-topic argument -- a legitimate but chancy approach -- that allows them to shift the terms of the debate to the topic they really want to talk about: the incarceration rate of African American men. To use this as a platform to expound their views on alternatives to incarceration, they have taken the official resolution about "increasing the number of persons serving in national service" and tweaked it. When it is their turn to argue against this youth-service proposal, they do so by asserting that, because ex-cons are barred from some programs, the programs are inherently unfair. (Many of these federally funded programs require criminal background checks at the state level, and there are some restrictions regarding ex-cons' participation.) To bolster their arguments, the students regularly invoke a successful San Francisco-based reentry program called the Delancey Street Foundation, which hires ex-cons who have completed job training to teach newly emerging prisoners. When it is the students' turn to argue in favor of the proposal, they focus on "increasing the number of persons serving" by allowing more of the formerly incarcerated to participate.

The Milwaukee students are trying to wrap their heads around this argument that comes out of left field. "So, what is your point?" Angela demands during the cross-examination. "What's your overview of this whole case?"

Jermol smiles and unfolds his gangly limbs to stand again. "We're making an argument that prisons are one of the worst things that ever happened in our society, like a modern form of slavery," he says.

"How are prisons a form of slavery?" Angela shoots back. "The 13th Amendment says all forms of slavery are abolished."

"Prisons are a form of slavery," Jermol parries, "since they deprive men of their liberty and provide free or cheap prison labor."

In the chasm of silence that follows, the wheels are clearly turning in Angela's brain as she struggles for traction. She leans over to say something to her partner, 16-year-old Kyle Sperandio, a slightly chubby young man in an orange button-down shirt. They ask the judge for some prep time, the debate equivalent of a timeout, to whisper loudly to each other.

"Ohmygod," Kyle complains, annoyed and frustrated by Iggy and Jermol's stance.

"I hate that they're saying, once they let these people free, that they're going to go out and do community service. Yeah, right! Let's ask them for an example, like, do you even know anyone in prison?"

But Angela panics: "No! Don't ask them that!"

IN FACT, AS YOUNG AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN GROWING UP IN INNER-CITY BALTIMORE, Iggy and Jermol know many people who are serving time. They include Jermol's father and Iggy's brother. And in the teens' view, the topic they are arguing is one of the most pressing issues in America.

Iggy and Jermol are participants in what began nine years ago as a pilot program in eight Baltimore schools to teach democracy -- as well as critical thinking, basic literacy and research skills -- to underprivileged urban kids but has snowballed into a wildly popular competition drawing more than 1,000 students from 60 schools to Baltimore's tournaments on any given weekend. The kids compete in citywide, national and even international debate competitions (Jermol went to debate in England last year; Iggy, to the Czech Republic this summer).

Debate organizers invoke a 2004 University of Missouri-Kansas City study to note that a year's participation in debate improves literacy by 25 percent and makes students three times less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as fighting and skipping school. A recent Education Week study found that Baltimore City had the third-worst graduation rate of the nation's 50 largest school districts. Only 34.6 percent of Baltimore students graduate, but 90 percent of the city's urban debaters graduate on time, and 90 percent go on to college.

This, despite the fact that debate coaches don't set out to attract top students. "The kids people expect us to serve, the ones who naturally rise to the top, always find us," says Baltimore Urban Debate League Executive Director Pam Spiliadis. "But those aren't the kids we're most after. We target the ones who have a lot of potential but don't live up to it, who skip school, who goof off, who are disengaged from learning."

The program relies on teens' love of arguing, their desire to compete and their prodigious appetites (free breakfast and pizza are served at every tournament) to attract participants. "We tell students, 'You already know how to argue; let's just add some structure and research to make your arguments sound,'" Spiliadis says.

Organizers get the students on their feet from the start, arguing in front of their peers about a topic they are already familiar with. "Immediately, they get the thrill and rush that comes from having people listen to them instead of lecturing them, and there is something very exciting and empowering about that -- especially when they get rewarded with a trophy for doing it well."

These "intellectual athletes" can get 500 additional hours of academic instruction each year through debate practice and the research that goes into preparing their arguments, Spiliadis says, but, just as important, debate becomes an empowering tool for them. "They become critical thinkers and speakers, and effective advocates for themselves and their communities."

Baltimore's Urban Debate League is part of a burgeoning national movement to bring debate to inner-city kids, with similar programs launched in more than 20 cities over the past decade, from Detroit to Chicago to Kansas City to Washington. The program in the District is still in its infancy: Approximately 300 students regularly participate, many from the city's charter schools. Colin Touhey, director of the District's program, says debate has reached a crucial turning point here, with the city's new chancellor willing to embrace and expand the program throughout the public schools.

In Baltimore, money to launch the Urban Debate League in 1999 came from the George Soros-funded Open Society Institute, which spent more than $3 million over six years to get the program going. Originally, OSI had been an advocate and funder for debate programs in the former Soviet Union, envisioning the programs as a way to teach the disenfranchised about citizenship in a participatory democracy. But it wasn't long before the folks at OSI looked around and realized that the disenfranchised in this country might benefit from a similar program. Today, OSI has funded urban debate programs in 14 U.S. cities where poverty, crime and racism are prevalent.

"A few years back, you could walk into some of the language arts classes here in Baltimore and kids would literally have their heads down on the desk, asleep," says Diana Morris, director of OSI-Baltimore. "Then you walk into a debate class, and the kids would be on their feet, totally excited, strategizing about putting an argument together and arguing over how to back it. It was like night and day." The program has been so successful in Baltimore that it now operates independently of OSI and is administered instead by a partnership between the city's public schools and Towson University.

But the biggest benefit of debate, according to the coaches, teachers and judges in the program, is that it engages underprivileged students, who are learning to study, think, write and present their ideas with the best of them. In the '70s, when budget crunches forced urban schools to eliminate many "extraneous" programs, such as art, drama and speech, debate became the exclusive bailiwick of affluent private and suburban public schools. "For a long time, debate teams had looked very white and male, in coats and ties, like you'd expect," says Spiliadis. "But we've changed the face of debate."

The Baltimore urban debaters have also put their mark upon it.

If the nation's high school debate world is its own subculture with its own lingo (legalese and non-vernacular speech) and traditions (business attire, please!), and the Urban Debate League is its own subculture within this world with slightly different lingo ("Yo! Judges, listen up.") and traditions (food, and plenty of it), then Iggy and Jermol are in a further counter-culture of the debate world.

Students in all the high school Urban Debate Leagues practice policy debate, which is research intensive and requires them to argue the same topic all year, going deeper into their preparation and thinking. But Iggy and Jermol are part of a growing movement that challenges the very rules of debate.

Called kritik, or performance debate, the form is generally credited to teams at California State University-Fullerton, the University of Texas-Austin and Fort Hays State University in Kansas. The teams who use it -- estimated to be approximately 10 percent of the college circuit, 5 percent of the high school circuit and 25 percent of Baltimore debaters -- value the emotional impact of arguing, and they work that angle by using rap, hip-hop, poetry and performance art to help make their points accessible and moving. ("Other cats spit raps about gats and staying strapped because that's all they got / focus on what's not / well, it's times like this / somebody should speak up and say it's ludicrous," high school senior Damien Poole rapped to the Baltimore judges during a debate about violence at a tournament in April.) These rebel debaters are likely to go off topic or "kritik" the topic, rules or nature of debate itself. Critics of the form say it undermines the rigorous research required to win in conventional policy debate. But proponents insist it levels the playing field.

"These debaters have infected the normal circuit," says Melissa Wade, who founded the first Urban Debate League in Atlanta in 1985 and who runs the 37-year-old Emory National Debate Institute, a summer debate camp for high- and middle-schoolers. "The performance debate students make the argument that traditional research was speaking for the other, the powerful in society, but their own voice also has to be heard. And this organic intellectual voice from a community that is under-represented and dismissed needs to play out in the vernacular of that group -- so hip-hop is a legitimate way the black culture might choose to express itself." Still, Wade says, all of these students are well-versed in traditional debate before they begin deconstructing it -- and plenty of them excel at this form.

Whatever style the urban debaters choose to adopt, their debate training has some unexpected results.

"When we introduce an Urban Debate League program in a city, about half the principals usually show up in my office or at a tournament wondering what's going on with their students," Wade says. "They can't understand why all these students are suddenly in their office demanding computers and AP classes and money to go to tournaments."

The debaters' travel to other parts of the country exposes them to the "educational apartheid" in this nation, she says. "They go back to their high schools and start demanding that the asbestos get removed from the ceilings and that a calculus class be offered so they can compete for college admission. They want to be lawyers and politicians and activists, and go back to their community and demand changes."

So, debate can be dangerous?

Wade gives a sly smile. "Absolutely."

BACK IN ATLANTA, IGGY STANDS IN FRONT OF HIS WELL-HEELED OPPONENTS from Milwaukee in a pair of baggy jeans and a T-shirt bearing a Tootsie Roll logo. His hair, a Mohawk that is growing out, coalesces on the top of his head like a peaked cap. He has a wide smile and the easy confidence that comes from knowing he can talk his way out of a paper bag. He hitches up his jeans slightly, turns to address the two judges (college students from nearby Emory University) and lapses into debate jargon to map out for the judges what direction his arguments will take.

"First, we're going to go solvency. Then federalism dis-ad. Then their T. And then back on case," he says.

For layfolks, this means he plans to address an argument about whether his and Jermol's plan solves the problem of improving society through more volunteerism, an argument about the separation of state and federal powers when it comes to implementing and funding volunteer programs, a technical argument about the wording of the topic, and then arguments about why a plan is needed to address the prison crisis and whether their plan solves the problem.

The judges nod and make some notes on the meticulous flowcharts they keep to track which arguments have been made and whether the opposing team has addressed them.

Iggy pauses, waiting for the judges to finish and to make sure all eyes in the room are upon him. Unlike Jermol -- whose mission in the opening arguments require him to cram as much information as he can into a short time; who invokes Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Paulo Freire and a slew of stats to back his assertions; who regularly practices speed-reading by reading texts aloud backward, or with a pencil in his mouth, or with an added vowel between each word -- Iggy opts for drama. He is a performer who likes playing his audience and borrows his style from the best of preachers, beginning slow and soft and building to a climax of impassioned exhortation. During one round at this tournament, he will climb on a desk to make a point. During another, he will lie on the ground and say to his opponents, "Go ahead, oppressors! Oppress me." In Baltimore, he once used a pair of toy handcuffs to hook his opponents to a desk, so they could appreciate a prisoner's plight, then he moved the desk around so they understood how it felt to be deprived of free will. (Surprisingly, Iggy and Jermol won that round.) But right now, in the first round of this tournament, Iggy assumes a pleasant, conversational tone to present some basics.

"Our plan will enrich the community and improve society," he says. "Adopting an each-one-teach-one program like the Delancey Street model means those coming out of prison are going to learn from other ex-incarcerated people how to hold a job and do better for themselves. We are breaking down stereotypes that ex-cons can't do without the system."

He goes on to explain to his opponents in some detail how the Delancey Street Foundation model works. The San Francisco-based program, started in 1971, houses, feeds and educates ex-cons, drug abusers and others who are in trouble, and teaches them job skills necessary to run the program. The foundation uses only its own graduates. Because Delancey Street runs businesses such as restaurants and moving companies, it is self-sustaining and requires no public funds. Since its founding, it has graduated 14,000 workers and expanded to five locations across the country.

"We're getting at the root causes here," Iggy says, arguing that this is a sustainable alternative to prison, that more programs like this might eventually make the prison-industrial complex obsolete. "We're changing the individual. That individual can say, 'I'm taking responsibility for myself. I'm not becoming a slave to the government in prisons. I am myself. I am not committing crimes, murder, stealing, but am an active member of the community doing for myself.'

"We're not saying, 'All male prisoners should be released immediately!' But we are saying that . . . by targeting these individuals, these so-called problem individuals, and getting them into programs like Delancey Street, this can really make a difference."

He pauses for dramatic effect.

"My brother is in prison, and my partner's father is in prison," Iggy says. He skips details: His brother is imprisoned in New Jersey on a robbery conviction, and Jermol's father is serving time in Maryland for violating probation on drug charges. Instead, he argues that this personal situation, which dovetails with a national crisis, is urgently in need of a solution. "We're offering a program that's already been proven to work, that could be implemented across the country tomorrow."

And here, as Iggy addresses his opponents' argument of topicality -- their assertion that he shouldn't even be talking about prisons because it is too far afield from the assigned topic -- his voice rises. He wrings his hands, pleading. He raises his fist, insisting.

"We wouldn't have all these problems in the United States today if we thought through things and faced some of the root sources of poverty and racism," he says. "This is exactly the reason we have debate, to allow us to go to this kind of discussion. This is the reason for debate! But if you insist on topicality, well . . ." He exhales dismissively. "We might as well give up. Because that's exactly why the schools systems are failing us today, this top-down, hierarchical education, where you can't question the status quo and talk about the real problems!" He is yelling now. "You have to fight to talk about what really matters. You have to look at how --"

A timer beeps, cutting him off mid-sentence. He takes a deep breath. He hitches up his pants once again. He straightens up. "I'll stand now for cross-examination."

WHILE HE CAN DELIVER A HALF-HOUR, SINGSONG MONOLOGUE during a debate as smoothly and persuasively as any preacher wrestling a theological question to the ground, Iggy keeps his own cards close to his chest. Fellow debaters know his politics, but they may not know if he even has a father. They know his views on all the isms (federalism, fascism, feminism, etc.) but not when he last saw his often-absentee mother. They know each point he invokes to prove the prison-industrial complex in the United States is a huge moneymaker, but not why his only brother is incarcerated in New Jersey.

When pushed, Iggy reluctantly offers his life story: He moved to Baltimore from New Jersey with his mother, brother and stepfather in 1996 when he was 6, he says, to take care of his grandfather, who was sick. His mom's family came from Baltimore, and she knew lots of folks, so they stayed on. "My mom was a drug addict," he says. "I couldn't speculate about what drugs she was on, but she was an addict, and it eventually tore our family apart." When Iggy was in ninth grade, his stepfather left his mother, returning to New Jersey and taking Iggy's older brother with him. Iggy was left with his mother, who, he says, spiraled downward, disappearing for long stretches and failing to pay the bills, including the mortgage on the house she owned in Baltimore. One day when Iggy was 14, she simply disappeared. Iggy stayed on at the house for a week by himself, thinking she'd come back. But instead the sheriff showed up and handed Iggy a court-ordered eviction notice. Iggy took what he could carry and went over to a friend's house.

"I stayed there for a while," he says, "but it became very strenuous and difficult for my friend's mom with only a single paycheck, since she was a single parent with her kid and me." Iggy worked as a camp counselor at a local recreation center that summer to help bring in some money, a job he loved. Then, as the summer drew to a close, his mom reappeared without explanation, he says.

"I was like, 'Oh, so you're still alive,'" he says. But it was hard at first to forgive her. "Your mother leaving you kind of leaves you vulnerable and not receptive to her being back."

With nowhere to live, Iggy says, he and his mom were offered a tiny apartment in the converted second floor of Iggy's girlfriend's grandmother's house. But then, in February of Iggy's sophomore year at Douglass, Iggy says his mother took off again. "She just didn't come home one night," he says. "I was like, 'What happened? What'd I do this time?'"

This time, Iggy's girlfriend's mother stepped in and invited Iggy to come live with them. His girlfriend's parents eventually tried to get custody of Iggy, so that they could take him to the doctor if necessary or sign permission slips for school field trips, Iggy says, but his mom contested it.

"While they had this custody battle, I was sent in and out of group homes," Iggy says. Fights broke out among other kids, he says, and, afraid to sleep, his grades dropped. "I remember one instance where I was kind of sleeping but not sleeping hard, because it was a new environment, and one of the kids said, 'Let's steal his sneakers.' After that I always slept with my sneakers on." Iggy made a decision -- "I'd rather fend for myself" -- and ran away.

His mother, Monyette Evans, concedes she had a drug problem and attributes it to a chronic back condition that led to an addiction to the painkillers OxyContin and Percocet. "Yes, my child lived through that," she says, explaining that her osteoporosis and crushed disk meant her two sons had to take care of her. "I was completely bedridden and couldn't walk for four years."

In a fog because of the medications, she says, she entrusted bill paying to others, who let her down. "I just woke up one day and started reading the mail and saw I was too late to do anything; my house was in foreclosure." Today, she says, she has been through detox and is better.

As for Iggy, after leaving the shelter, he says, he slipped back into living with his girlfriend's family again. That worked for about a year. "They treated me like a son," says Iggy, "but it was kind of hard, her being my girlfriend and us living in the same house."

Especially when she came up pregnant.

The girlfriend's family was angry at the news. "The parents favored abortion," he says. "They were like, 'Ya'll have a lot to do: Go to college, get a job.' I said to my girlfriend, 'I'm not leaving, whatever we need to do, fine. But I don't believe children should be without a father.'" The girlfriend decided to get an abortion, and Iggy stayed on at her family's house for a while but says things were very strained. He didn't want to get married; he was still thinking about going to college. "It became more evident that I needed to be a son, not a boyfriend. And that kind of tore at our relationship."

Iggy does not know his biological father. And his older brother, now 19, was in New Jersey. Fortunately, two of Iggy's teachers and his debate coach, Najib Jammal, rallied around him and put the word out among staff at Douglass that he needed a place to live. They approached the guidance counselor, 55-year-old Aniece Vinson, who lived with her 19-year-old son at the time, and asked if she might take Iggy in, so that he could finish out his senior year. "He has a clan of teachers that he has surrounded himself with," says Vinson. "And his English teacher gave me his history and asked me, would I consider having him in my home, because she knew my son James and thought it would be a good match." Vinson has a reputation for a being a softy when it comes to kids in trouble, so much so that she has lost track of the number of kids she has taken into her home over the 31 years she has worked in the Baltimore City public schools. (She estimates it is about 15.) She didn't know Iggy but liked him the minute she met him.

"It didn't take me long to say yes," Vinson recalls. "I figured my son and Iggy, these two boys together, could probably keep themselves occupied without bothering me," she says with a laugh. "That's what I thought!" Eventually, she obtained legal guardianship of Iggy for his senior year, with his mother's approval.

Iggy, who right now is sitting in Vinson's school counselor's office, shoots back, "We're not so bad."

"Well," she teases. "The art of debate is so embedded in him he could argue you to the ground about a bag of potato chips. Isn't that true, Ignacio?"

A sheepish Iggy nods.

"I've had to say to him once or twice, when you put that key in the door, debate stops here. We had to go over and over that one for a bit. There were certain things that just weren't debatable, and I had the final say in the house. But he is quite a young man," she says. "And I'm not just saying that because he's standing here."

Vinson laughs, then, without missing a beat, nods toward her interior office as a pregnant teen enters -- "Baby girl, you can go in there and wait" -- and continues. "The odds Iggy had to fight, and to see what he has overcome is just wonderful. He is able to go into a situation and pull out the pros and cons of anything -- and I do mean anything! -- and this has afforded him the opportunity of being where he is." She says with pride that Iggy will graduate 10th in his class.

"And No. 10 is No. 1 to me!," she says.

Iggy smiles and, for once, is at a loss for words.

AT ATLANTA'S FUQUA TOURNAMENT, IGGY AND JERMOL VIGOROUSLY DEFEND their departure from the text of the debate proposal, insisting that a rigid adherence to rules of topicality will be the death of democracy as we know it. "Topicality is used to enslave us, to impose an agenda and to keep us from talking about what really matters," Jermol tells the judges in one of his pleas. "If you vote in favor of following fascist rules, you will allow fascism to grow in this country. I want to propose a reverse vote on topicality, because, otherwise, it silences our voices."

One of his opponents, Angela Jones, disagrees. "If he doesn't agree with the rules of the U.S., he should just get out of the country," she says. "He's a United States citizen. Where's he from? Baltimore? And doesn't his family vote for the people who are in power who represent us in the United States?

"This is not communism. This is not a classless society. Someone is always going to have more power here. There is always going to be someone who has more power and someone who has less. If he wants power, he should work his way to the top . . ." She slips off on a tangent and eventually, it is Iggy's turn to speak and wrap things up for his team.

"Talking about the real issues is key here," Iggy says. "My partner has stated that we should talk about things that affect us, things that matter. The imprisonment of African American men matters to us. In his speech and in my speech, we have talked about how advocacy for what you believe is key, and that is what we are doing." He glances at Angela, who is busy packing her papers back into her rubber bin and, if she is listening at all, gives no indication. He addresses her directly. "You're probably just going to go home and go to and do whatever you do on a daily basis. But we're talking about things that relate to us, things that . . ."

A timer goes off indicating that the debate is over.

As Angela and Kyle continue piling files into their bin, Iggy asks the two judges if they have any advice.

"Well, I thought your speeches were good. Very strong," one judge, Sam Caporal, says. "But you let them get away with too much."

He points out that Iggy and Jermol had some persuasive facts to counter with when Angela worried about the impact on society of putting inmates back on the streets in programs such as Delancey Street. "The cost of the prison system is a real big problem for the government now. You should say these programs can reduce the number in prison and that will save a lot of money. Do you know how much money it costs on average to keep someone in prison for a year?"

"Forty-three thousand dollars," Iggy answers promptly, citing the high-end figure for federal super-maximum-security inmates.

"That should have been in there," the judge says.

Two days and seven exhausting debate rounds later, Iggy and Jermol will learn that they had won this round, with both the judges voting in their favor. But, overall, too many of the tournament's judge pairs split their votes -- "used explicit language excessively," one judge chides in the ballot commentary section -- and it is clear that their risky off-topic approach didn't pay off this time. Though they are the third-ranking team out of 14 in the Fuqua tournament, and though both Jermol and Iggy garner awards for placing fourth and sixth, respectively, in the top-speakers category, they are disappointed. They are used to doing better.

After accepting his speaker award, Jermol slumps down in his seat and shoots Iggy a dispirited look before sliding his prize across the cafeteria table for Iggy to look at. He has won a book by tournament namesake, J.B. Fuqua, the late self-made millionaire businessman and politician, titled Fuqua: How I Made My Fortune Using Other People's Money.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS HIGH SCHOOL IS A MASSIVE FORTRESS HOUSING 1,200 STUDENTS. It sits across the street from Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall, a glorified name for a vast, mostly empty parking lot with a smattering of shops, which has never really lived up to its promise as a shiny transportation hub for bus and subway lines. On a windy day, litter blows across the parking lot like tumbleweed, picks up speed across Gwynns Falls Parkway, floats on an updraft from passing traffic and whams into the stone walls of Douglass High School, where pieces of it line up, like so many students, in a tidy row against the base of the building.

The school itself has tumbled down a steep incline since Thurgood Marshall graduated in 1925. It is one of four failing Baltimore City high schools that the state targeted for takeover last year under the No Child Left Behind Act. The numbers that drove the state to act are grim: In 2005-06, only 56 percent of Douglass's students graduated, only 16 percent passed the English proficiency test and just 3 percent passed the required geometry proficiency. Students in this mostly black and mostly poor school (59 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) complain that it lacks basic resources -- such as enough textbooks to go around. Violence is rampant; last year, a 14-year-old was shot in the back at a Douglass home football game. "Fights are all the time breaking out at school," Iggy says.

Within that context, he says, his first two years of high school were rough. He was at sea, bored with school, mistrustful of authority and very argumentative. About everything. "I would argue with my teachers, like, 'Why do we have to do homework when the point of homework is to make sure I understand the material, and I have already shown you I understand the material?'" he says. "I argued and argued and argued."

Finally, an exasperated media production teacher suggested he rechannel his contrariness by joining the debate team. "There was a girl in that class who was on the debate team, and I would always argue with her about everything," says Iggy. The teacher got fed up with his waste of valuable class time, Iggy says, and told him he ought to go formally head-to-head with this girl on the debate team. The teacher described how the debate team worked, including its perks. "I was like, 'Okay, free pizza and trophies! I guess I'll try it.'"

Midway through his junior year, Iggy began attending debate practice a couple of times a week. Mostly, he lost matches, but toward the end of the year, in his third tournament, the debate coach paired him with Jermol, and together they took off. "We ranked really high in that tournament and decided to be partners," Iggy says. Iggy and Jermol got scholarships to debate camps at Towson University and in Wyoming.

"I was basically a novice going into a national camp completely unprepared, but, luckily, I didn't realize that until after I got there," Iggy says of the Wyoming experience. "Then, it was having to live, eat and sleep debate for two weeks straight."

He was hooked.

For his part, Jermol fell into debate randomly early that same year. "One day in my business class, one of the students said she had to leave early to attend a debate practice," he says. "I wanted to get out of class, too, so I told the teacher I also had to go to debate."

Rather than linger in the halls, he actually went. "And I liked it." Jermol, then a sophomore with a 3.7 GPA, had not found his classes at Douglass particularly challenging. He was surprised at how hard it was to debate. "I lost all three of my rounds at my first tournament, so I was motivated to do better."

With the help of Douglass coaches Najib Jammal and Debbie Ehler, Iggy and Jermol immersed themselves in debate strategies, became friends as well as partners, and honed their game for hours after school. Jammal, a work-study teacher, drills them at debate practice three days a week -- and typically sees them on the other two days through the youth entrepreneurship program that he runs and they participate in. Jammal is also a regular presence at their tournament rounds, so familiar with their arguments that in his postgame analysis after each match he easily pinpoints the ones they've sloppily dropped or adeptly hammered home.

"Typically, Iggy and Jermol have a mutual respect for each other, but they also challenge each other -- and that makes for a strong team," he says.

And it is clear that Iggy and Jermol have found their groove. "His strengths are more technical, and he has a better knowledge of how to use the debate jargon," Iggy says. "My strength is having the vision for how the round should go and will go." Iggy sees this as the best of both worlds. "He speed-reads, and I'm not the best at that. I love explaining the theories and ideas behind things and the flaws in reasoning. I'm more the loophole finder."

While debate has honed Iggy's skills, sharpened his reasoning and given him a voice, it has not curtailed his love of the fight. He's still fighting, but he has learned to pick his battles.

Last year, when the longtime principal was replaced at Douglass without any explanation to the student body and a new principal was installed overnight, without any introduction, Iggy helped lead a sit-down strike among students who left the building to march on school board headquarters. Calling their group the Student Concern Committee, the students insisted they had a right to know what was going on and a right to an equal education. They believed students' rights had been run over roughshod. Speaking at a school board meeting that same evening, Iggy explained that the students were fond of their principal and wanted to say goodbye. "She helped me out when my mother left me," Iggy told the audience of board members, parents, students and a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. "She extended her arm and was like, 'Whatever you need, I'm there.' She pushed the papers so I could become a foster child, and now I am.'" Iggy said she believed in students from broken homes who were constantly told they could not succeed in life.

Iggy credits debate for giving him the confidence to go before the board and speak his mind. "Now I know debate is a tool to learn more than the school system will teach us. I can express myself," he says. He has discovered that words matter, and debate has taught him a slew of new ones.

"Take the word 'myopic,'" Iggy says. "I never dreamed of using the word myopic in my daily life. But here it is slipping out in my sentences now."

He's on a roll.

"The school board's got a myopic view of students that keeps them down," he says. "Now I can just go out and say, 'This is wrong. What they're doing -- or not doing, really -- in our schools is wrong' and people listen, because I'm a debater. It's like a qualification, like you're somebody, like you've got your ideas and your proof . . . and what you say matters."

He marvels: "You can persuade people to fix things."

ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN MAY, AS THE SCHOOL YEAR IS WINDING TO A CLOSE, several hundred Baltimore City debaters gather in Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall for a final tally of the season's scores and to present awards to the winners. The students are dressed in their finest: dresses and heels for most of the girls; suits and ties for the boys. They nibble on tiny ham and cheese sandwiches and drink soda while trying not to spill anything on their fancy attire. Moms and dads and grandmas and sisters and brothers mill about with the teens, as pleased as if this were graduation. Finally, there is an announcement that the eighth annual Baltimore Urban Debate League awards ceremony is about to begin, and everyone moves en masse into the auditorium and takes a seat.

Iggy and Jermol are nowhere in sight.

Iggy had mentioned several days earlier that Jermol was AWOL. "All I know," Iggy said, "was that he was having some sort of family problems." Debate season was over, and neither Iggy nor Jammal were in daily contact anymore. "Nobody's seen him," Iggy said. "He's barely been at school these past weeks."

Onstage, Chris Baron, director of debate for BUDL and also the assistant debate coach at Towson University, is commending the students for their tremendous commitment. "The Baltimore Urban Debate League has had 2,038 rounds of debate this year alone," he says. "We have had 16,304 speeches with 132,432 minutes of debates, which means . . ." He pauses for dramatic effect. ". . . if you put those speeches back to back, 90 days of speeches!" The students applaud. He cites the various cities and states BUDL debaters have traveled to, including Iggy and Jermol's trip to Atlanta.

Iggy and Jermol are still not here.

The awards ceremony goes on and on. The top 10 tournament-winning schools are announced, and Iggy and Jermol still have not arrived when Doug-lass is awarded sixth place. Scholarships to debate camp are announced, and Jermol, a rising senior, is not there to claim his. Then, Towson's director of forensics, Darren Goins, announces that Iggy has won a full, four-year debate scholarship to Towson University, covering tuition and fees (valued at $35,056). The crowd whoops and hollers. Some shout Iggy's name. A few debaters down front can be seen whispering to Iggy's new girlfriend, Hong Mei Pang, who is onstage having just accepted her own full scholarship to Towson. She shrugs her shoulders. She does not know where he is. The applause peters out into puzzled silence.

Finally, almost two hours late to the event and 10 minutes after his Towson scholarship has been announced, Iggy arrives. He will explain later that he and his mom had to wait for his stepfather to arrive from New Jersey. Jermol will say that a trip to see family friends in Philadelphia kept him from attending the ceremony. He missed some school during the preceding weeks because he had to babysit a young cousin, he will say.

Right now, though, Iggy is at last escorting his biological mother and stepfather down the aisle of the dark auditorium, toward seats in the back. His mother, wearing a neck brace, sits stiffly and, though it is warm, never removes her coat. His stepfather squeezes his large frame into the narrow auditorium chair and laces his hands primly in his lap.

There is a vacant seat next to them for Iggy. But instead of taking it, Iggy scans the auditorium, spies the person he is seeking, and strides down the aisle to plop down in a seat next to his coach Najib Jammal. Jammal thumps him on the back and smiles delightedly. They hold a quick whispered powwow, and Iggy's grin is visible from many rows away as Jammal tugs him out of his seat.

With smiles neither can contain, the two walk down front. Jammal catches Baron's attention onstage and points to his beloved yet very tardy student. Baron, who has moved on to another category of awards, pauses on the podium.

"Well, if it isn't Iggy Evans," he mock drawls into the mike. Baron replays the entire script, re-awarding Iggy his four-year scholarship to Towson.

To tremendous cheers, Iggy trots onstage to claim his giant check.

Karen Houppert, who lives in Baltimore, is the author of Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military -- for Better or Worse. She can be reached at e-mail

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