Every now and again, whenever I’m back in Texas, I’ll judge Student Congress tournaments on Houston’s north side, which is the side without the money and the dazzle and the glitz; and even though the lockers are fading, and the water fountains are busted, black and brown kids from the houses lining the feeder road dress up in teal-blue button-downs and Dockers and cufflinks to debate abortion rights and immigration directives and incarceration reduction and statewide food deserts, turning their underfunded, overcrowded, often neglected schools into the intellectual boons our country could have if it actually wanted them.
In the 115th United States Congress, there are currently fifteen Asian Americans. We’ve got thirty-eight Latinos, forty-nine African Americans, two Muslims, 104 women, thirty Jewish lawmakers, and seven LGBT representatives. Individually, the numbers look remarkable. Laudable, even. And of the 535 members between the House and the Senate, they are still hardly indicative of their constituency’s diversity.
But the debates provide a look at a parallel reality. On any given weekend in Alief, you’ll end up judging a room full of Latino kids, all of them fluent in the “One China” policy. Or a roster that’s half-Nigerian, riffing on public school funding. Or twenty Vietnamese kids poking at cyber security. Or a few trans students. Or a gaggle of atheists. Or the kids who simply don’t know who they’d like to be just yet, only that they are Something Else, and they’ll let you know when they figure it out.
It is science fiction, in a literal sense. It’s also fucking absurd. And it’s as clear a portrait of our nation as any you’re likely to find.
One time this black girl collapsed in tears over a hypothetical amendment to the Paris Agreement. But she wasn’t particularly upset. She was just making her point. Clean air is delicious, she said, inhaling for effect. She slapped her hands after every syllable.
One time I watched a kid stand on a chair to recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards. She was blonde, and pale, and wholly convinced that our current naturalization process was dehumanizing.
One time I heard this Native American kid give a speech in defense of Black History Month. He stood up in his suit jacket, navy blue with polka dots all over. He couldn’t have been taller than five-foot-three. He’d nearly buzzed his hair to the scalp. He wore a snapback and outrageously tight khakis and I actually couldn’t imagine what his life outside that classroom was like. But he cleared his throat, and rose both palms, citing Zora Neale Hurston and Mae Carol Jemison and Baldwin and Obama and Left Eye. The argument was immaculate. His competitors held their breath. The woman judging beside me circled his name until it bled through her scorecard.
After the round had come to a close, I stopped the kid at the door. I told him what he’d done was electrifying. He’d given me a light for the dark.
He looked at me like I was bugging. Thanks, he said, but it’s just common sense.
If you judge enough tournaments, you start running into the same kids. Some of them are theatrical, outsized in the halls. Some of them are known in the orbit of their particular debate circuit. It’s not rare to catch one kid trying on a particular identity, or a way of speaking or presenting themselves, only to abandon it a few weekends later for some whole other thing.
Some kids, you just watch them, and you know they’re too big for their situation. You hope and hope they’ll get their chance and you know it’s possible they won’t.
On paper, the winners are the kids who make the most compelling arguments. They’re judged by a group of older folks and their peers. But really, it’s all about how a kid works the room. It’s less about what they’re saying than how they say it, and who they’re saying it to.
Some kids have the most compelling arguments, the most solid evidence, and they’ll end up missing the point entirely. They’ll lose the round for being an asshole in their delivery. And I’ve seen rounds where the kid’s argument isn’t all that sharp, with evidence that’s dubious at best, but they’re up-front with their audience, and straight about where they’re coming from, and their peers will see the human in their argument and all of a sudden they’ll end up nabbing a trophy.
Sometimes a tournament with lower-income schools will be held in a wealthy district. It’s just how the schedule works out. The kids’ buses roll in, graying and dented, and the lots that they’ll park in are blow-dried and lacquered. You’ll catch the contempt on some of their faces. Some are a little awestruck. Others find it fucking hilarious.
For a lot of these students, it’s their first contact with Money, and people who’ve known nothing outside of it. The first time they’ve met kids whose schools support independent budgets for debate, with boosters and fundraisers and rallies. Those kids will have the tailored suits and the swagger and everything else, but their appearance isn’t necessarily a predictor of success. More often than not, it isn’t any indicator at all.
Once, after an especially compelling argument in favor of expanding the military’s budget, delivered in a tone you’d be hard-pressed to call anything but entitled, the blonde kid who made it sat right down when a black girl in cornrows rose her hand to make a comment. She wore a purple dress. Her sandals slapped at the tile.
Your argument, she said, makes no fucking sense. None.
And then she sat down. Because that was it. And the blonde kid looked embarrassed, just like the judges looked embarrassed, and the girl looked embarrassed for anyone who thought that it did.
If a student asks why I’m judging—and they almost never do—I tell them that I used to run with STUCO myself. It’s not like I get paid (if anything, I lose money). I hit my first debate tournament for the same reason I did everything else at fourteen: Some guy I was into was doing it. I didn’t say shit my entire first round. I just sat there, staring. Lost in the sauce.
I’d entered the room with people that I’d thought were just like me, but who, in actuality, were operating in another milieu entirely. They were learned and wise. Wholly inscrutable. I couldn’t tell you which countries fought in World War I, let alone negotiate our ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
At the end of the set, one of the judges found me. He was this black guy, tall and stocky. He said he wished I’d spoken. He wanted to hear what I had to say. But maybe next time, he said, smiling at the thought, and the memory of that conversation shamed me for weeks.
The year after that, I actually spoke once or twice. I advanced in a few tournaments. The year after that, I won district. The year after that, I was an East Texas representative, and the National Tournament was held in Dallas, and I came in contact with Old Money for the first time in my life.
Every other kid wore an American flag pin on their lapels, and I’d driven into the city in a hoodie and sweats. Once I’d been knocked out in the first round, a complete and immediate annihilation, and the girl who’d sealed my fate called me in the commons afterwards. She was tall and dark-skinned. She said she hadn’t meant to do it. She hadn’t known I was the only other one.
I smiled and shook her hand.
I’d already driven back to Houston and a few months had passed before I realized what she’d meant.
One time there was a qualifying tournament, and I’d been asked to stand in as a judge. It was held in a very white part of town, and the room we were in mirrored the majority. There were two black kids on the roster, but they weren’t doing all that great. It was clear they weren’t going to make it. Their involvement was very low-stakes.
Still, once a resolution on the Civil Rights Act entered the docket, they both became animated; they flipped the whole fucking script. Their arguments were emphatic. They were physically emoting. They looked drained once they’d finished, like this was the thing they’d been waiting all year to do.
This is why we’re here, said one of the kids, beating at her chest. This is why we’re here, we’re here to make a change.
It was a hypothetical argument in a well-manicured classroom in a part of the city whose social justice engagement was flailing at best; but, for a minute, it felt like the world. For a minute, it felt like these kids held our future in their hands.
It’s been a minute since I’ve judged a tournament, but I keep track of some of the students. They’ll add me on Facebook or Twitter. Some of them have gone off to university. They’ll DM me for recommendation letters, or references, or advice, and the most I’ve got to tell them is that I don’t know what I’m doing either.
One got in touch with me a little while ago. He figured we’d grab lunch the last time I was in Texas. He’d taken a gap year to float around Europe, and then he prolonged his studies for another year, and now he was considering bypassing university entirely. He wanted to talk it out with someone. I put that meeting off for weeks, and then one day, months after he’d messaged, I said I’d meet him in town.
When I made it to the diner, he was sitting with this other kid. They had notes all over the table. They gestured wildly, breathlessly. The other kid looked like he really believed; they looked like they were getting real work done, and watching the pair from around the corner I seriously considered leaving them be.
There wasn’t a damn thing I could give them that they weren’t already giving themselves. They were, as far as I was concerned, the future in motion. They were the best of us, of where we are headed. But eventually, they looked up, and I waved from across the room, and I wandered across the restaurant to see what they could teach me.