POCATELLO — Debate is a family tradition for Madison High School junior Abigail Armstrong. Her father and older brother both competed before her.
“It’s fun to really research topics and see people’s point of view on them,” she said.
Armstrong isn’t the only local debater with roots in the pursuit. Many of the coaches, too, have family traditions of debate, or debated at local high schools before becoming teachers and passing on their passion to the next generation.
Madison was one of 22 high schools that brought teams to the annual BlackSnake Debate Tournament held Friday and Saturday at Idaho State University. The tournament was founded in 1958, and is viewed as the kickoff to the competitive debating season for local schools.
“Longest-running tournament in Idaho to my knowledge,” said Madison coach Bruce Benson.
Benson’s father, who was a debate coach at Snake River High School, was one of the tournament’s co-founders.
“I developed a passion for it,” he said. “It’s hard to walk away.”
Students who debate competitively aren’t going to have much free time for the next couple of months, with tournaments every weekend. They are also expected to keep up their grades to compete. Even when they’re not actively debating at tournaments, the students are expected to pay attention to other debaters to pick up pointers and learn how to refine their own styles.
“It’s not like other activities where they have a lot of downtime between stuff,” said Marcy Curr, the debate coach at Shelley High School. “They’re pretty much active the whole time.”
Curr said she advises her competitive freshmen students not to go to every tournament so they don’t burn out too early.
The BlackSnake tournament was originally held at Blackfoot High School, but decades ago got too big, so it was moved to ISU. This year the event attracted about 750 students, from throughout southern Idaho and also from Montana, Wyoming and Utah.
The room where the coaches had set up during the BlackSnake tournament had a bit of a family feel — many of the younger ones did debate in high school around the same time, and some of the older ones were coaches when the younger coaches were competitors.
“I fell in love with the event as a high school student,” said Clif Davis, the debate coach at Hillcrest High School.
Davis went to South Fremont High School, debating at the BlackSnake himself as a senior. He got a scholarship to continue debating in college, covering half his tuition at Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho) and then at BYU in Provo.
Davis has been a debate coach for about 24 years, working at Teton High School and then at Shelley High School before getting his current job at Hillcrest a few years ago. He said he continues to coach because of the relationships he has built with students over the years and the effect debating can have on them. He has watched students who came from troubled backgrounds who participated in debate grow into adults who became contributing members of society.
“This event helps kids find their voice,” he said.
Several of the debate coaches at other area schools, including Curr, went to Hillcrest and passed through its debate club. Curr’s mother, Amy Walker, was the coach at Hillcrest for about 15 years.
“She started coaching in 1995, and she had a team of 18 kids, and she built it into a behemoth, where people would walk in and were like, ‘Oh, no, Hillcrest is here, we can’t win!’” Curr said.
Curr was debating on the Hillcrest High School team when Davis was the Teton coach; today, Curr’s children call him “debate grandpa.”
“It’s also really fun to be colleagues with people that I grew up with a ton of respect for,” Curr said.
Davis called Walker “arguably the most successful coach in Idaho over the past long time,” and said her work to build the program is a big reason for its strength there, including efforts to build a culture where the students feel safe, where families feel welcome and fundraising to make sure the program was affordable to students.
“Amy Walker was very, very good at that kind of thing,” Davis said.
Curr, who is in her third year at Shelley, just got her “First Diamond” award from the National Speech and Debate Association. These awards are based on a coach’s years of experience and how many points their team has earned in tournaments. Curr has enough points for a “Second Diamond” award but not enough time yet. Davis is a Third Diamond now and will become a Fourth next year, and was recognized earlier this year as one of the five finalists for the national group’s Speech Arts Educator of the Year award.
“Idaho is getting on the radar from the national association, which is really cool,” Curr said.
Students have different reasons for why they joined debate and what they enjoy about it. Carter Allen, a junior at Madison, said he joined because a friend of his was in it.
“It teaches you to think critically,” Allen said. “It also (helps) to see both sides of an argument, which is good.”
Victoria Mejia, a senior at Hillcrest, said she enjoys meeting students from other schools and learning about so many different topics as she prepares arguments.
“You have to potentially prepare cases for both sides and potentially argue both sides of a topic,” Armstrong said.
When Allen is preparing a case he doesn’t agree with personally, he said he looks for “arguments you can still see the logic of” to support it.
Davis said debate turns students into “mini-experts in a lot of areas,” more knowledgeable than most adults on many topics.
“It teaches you to open your mind and honestly explore and find or see the validity in the opposing point of view,” Davis said. “Something we need more of in this world.”
Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757.