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Rogers Debaters Win The "Rhetoric Of The Ring"

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

The fall season is underway for the high school and university debate teams in the Inland Northwest. Most weekends that means traveling around the region for tournaments.

Every year, the debaters at Rogers High School take part in a preseason practice match. This year, their oratorical opponents were two Spokane reporters. The venue was symbolic: a boxing ring.

When high school debaters compete, they usually stand behind podiums in classrooms and face a panel of judges.

So Tuesday’s Fifth Annual Rhetoric in the Ring event was unusual. The participants climbed between ropes to enter a space where combatants usually pound each other with gloves. The Howard Street Gym is the kind of place where Rocky Balboa might have developed his skills. Posters on the wall tout old Spokane boxing events. There are heavy bags, speed bags. The event is part theater, part fundraiser for the Rogers debate team and it’s organized by Jim Hedemark.

“We wanted to celebrate debate students as much as maybe the football or the basketball stars. It’s a way to promote debate. It’s fast-paced. It moves quickly. A lot of thought on your feet," he said.

Hedemark is the ring announcer and he likes to use boxing language to build interest in the event.

“We’ve got the mano-a-mano. Sometimes I call it the 'Kerfuffle in Spokano.' We bring a sports aspect and fun visuals to it. Podiums aren’t as interesting as standing in a boxing ring," he said.

“Are you ready for rhetoric?” Hedemark asks the crowd. “Yeah. Yeah," they answer and cheer.

Two debate students give impromptu speeches in what serves as a warm-up for the main event. Rhiannon Nicholas talks about what it’s like to be vegan and Abigail Chase speaks about funerals.

Then it’s time for the main event. In round one, student Molly Campbell and Spokesman-Review reporter Rebecca White spar on the question of movies versus books. Campbell touts books, White argues for movies.

And in round two, student Amanda Lugo and Inlander reporter Daniel Walters debate the question: Should Harry Potter magic be legal? Lugo argues for, Walters, a former high school debater himself, takes the con side.

“I’m serious when I say that we need wand control," Walters said to laughs. "We can look at how many wand-related deaths have happened in the United States of America. It’s very small, maybe two or three, two or three per 100,000. But at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft, it's mass hysteria, chaos, snakes coming alive and eating people. There’s some guy with a head on the back of his head. That’s not ok. I urge you to vote negative in order to ensure that heads stay on the front of a person’s face and not the back of a person’s face.”

Despite that impassioned plea, the audience, which includes the students’ parents and Walters’ parents and grandparents, gives the win to the students.

Molly Campbell says students look forward to the Rhetoric in the Ring event because it’s fun and it shines a spotlight on something she enjoys.

“It’s being able to pick what I want to speak about and working to make it the best I can and then hear other peoples’ speeches and being able to meet other people and have a lot of fun, eat food, go to other schools, travel to Seattle for state," Campbell said.

Her coach, Cara Heath, was a high school debater herself. She likes the challenge of building a program in a school that doesn’t have much debate tradition.

“When I first got here, it was two kids, so it was like, ‘Yay! Can I keep something going and give them that space?’ That’s what debate really is about, no matter who you are, you find a home here and that’s what kept me doing it; it’s a home, it’s a safe space for them. It’s fun and it’s a lot about growth,” Heath said.

She says it’s about getting up in front of people and conquering that fear of public speaking.

The Rhetoric in the Ring event has several sponsors, including two local law firms, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, Howard Street Properties and Councilmember Breean Beggs, who has children who debate. Past events have pitted students against attorneys, city council members and other professionals. The students remain undefeated.