Going ‘toe to toe with the best’

This summer, six members of the Jefferson City High School Speech and Debate team will travel to Birmingham, Ala., to compete in the National Forensic League competition.

The Jefferson City program has continued to excel in spite of the loss of two coaches in less than two years. Longtime coach Pete Stein retired last year from leading the team, and this year Abigail Nahlik took maternity leave. Speech teacher Christopher Rothgeb, who has been working with the team for almost a year at Nahlik’s side, stepped to the fore.

“I’m very, very proud of them,” Rothgeb said. “I know they’ve put in a lot of time working on this. I know they are going to represent Jefferson City the best they can.”

The seven students will be performing in five event categories, as listed:

• Sam Krause, Lincoln-Douglas debate.

• Gillian Mwangi, dramatic interpretation.

• Meredith Manda and Makayla Jordan-Diemler, congressional debate.

• Sam Willoh and Adrien Zambrano, duo interpretation.

• Adrienne Luther, oratory.

Speech team members start their work as soon as school starts in the fall, and the schedule rarely lets up until the March district tournament. However, participants selected to advance to nationals will continue to work until the final contest is over in mid-June.

For Kraus, his peers’ steady advance toward a bigger national presence is gratifying.

“My sophomore year, we sent two people to nationals. Last year, we had five people go, and this year we have six (others),” he said.

Kraus is a Lincoln-Douglas debater. The format is named after Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who debated the morality of slavery in 1858. Lincoln-Douglas debaters go

one-on-one to argue the big ethical and philosophical issues of the day. Kraus’s last contest required him to argue whether humanitarian intervention is justified. His next topic will be released May 1, and from then on he’ll immerse himself in debate prep.

Mwangi, a junior, already has her piece selected and ready. She’ll be interpreting “Unbowed,” an autobiographical selection by author Wangari Maathai about the Green Belt Movement. Wangari, a Kenyan, established the Green Belt organization in 1977 to focus on environmental conservation and community development.

Mwangi said she felt a bond with Maathai because both were born in Kenya and traveled to the United States.

“It was just cool to hear more about Kenya’s Iron Lady,” she said.

Manda, a sophomore, and Jordan-Diemler, a junior, will compete in the congressional debate division. In that event, competitors do not prepare topics in advance. Instead, they are expected to be knowledgeable on a variety of timely issues encountered by lawmakers. They might be asked to discuss abolishing the electoral college or expound on the abolition of semi-automatic weapons.

“We’ll use the same parliamentary procedure used by members of the United States Congress,” Jordan-Diemler said. “I definitely feel congressional debate has exposed me to a thousand more things because we debate so many topics.”

In the duo interpretation category — which involves a pair of performers acting out a short literary piece — Willoh and Zambrano have teamed up again to impress audiences. While last year they performed a comedic piece, this year they are trying a serious, yet funny, scene called “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by novelist Ned Vizzini.

“This piece is about a depressed teen who is considering suicide,” Willoh said. “But instead of committing suicide, he signs up for a psychiatric ward.”

The two teens are hopeful they’ll be able to engage judges’ emotions with pathos and humor.

“This is a way for us to stretch ourselves and be more serious,” Willoh added.

In the oratory category, competitors must deliver an original, albeit factual, speech of their own choosing. Junior Adrienne Luther said she’ll be sharing a piece she wrote last summer on the importance of not succumbing to the media.

“You pick a topic you find interesting, and you deliver a persuasive speech,” Luther said. “It revolves around universal truths.”

All seven of the students are thrilled to be going to nationals.

“It’s like a vacation,” Zambrano said. “I have every intention of doing well, but I’m also going to have a lot of fun.”

“It’s like this is the reward for all our hard work,” Willoh added. “The greatest thing about debate is you grow really close with not only your team, but the other people you compete against.”

About 100,000 students are involved in National Forensic League events; but only 1 percent advance to nationals.

“On any given day, these kids can go toe to toe with the best in the country,” Rothgeb added.

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