As high school students across the country were studying for AP tests and gearing up to primp and preen for prom, an elite group of students was just starting to research fresh debate topics ahead of the National Speech & Debate Tournament.
The competition started June 16 at the Sheraton Dallas and is touted as the biggest of its kind in the world, drawing thousands of high school and middle school speech and debate students from across the country. They converge on Dallas to vie for the chance to become a national champion. For some, it’s a journey of nearly a decade.
“It’s one of the most exciting places to be in the world, because you have all of these dynamic, talented, smart kids who are all equipped to communicate their ideas, and it’s just awesome,” says Cindi Timmons, head of the local host committee for the National Speech & Debate Tournament and USA Debate Team co-coach. “It’s kind of like being inside of a nuclear reactor. The energy level is just off the charts.”
Timmons has more than 30 years of experience teaching speech and debate, and says learning how to communicate complex information and effectively argue the points of a predetermined topic against someone else, can imbue students with confidence. This sentiment is something also shared by Jared Padalecki of Supernatural fame. He’ll be attending the competition on Thursday and Friday as a special guest and is a national speech and debate champion in his own right.
“It really helps prepare you for the world, the artistic aspect of speech and the objective aspect of debate, hopefully that builds a well-rounded person,” he says. “I think a life well lived is one where you seek out knowledge and you seek out learning. This could be a famous quote, I don’t know, but if you know everything now then you’re as smart as you’ll ever be. And that to me is depressing, so I try to remind myself, I don’t know everything, I have something to learn from everybody.”
Padalecki began competing in speech and debate as a freshman at James Madison High School and in 1998 became a National Forensics League champion in Duo Interpretation. The event is one of nearly 30 that will be held at the tournament and requires a team of two to interpret a literary passage without looking at or touching each other, as well as giving a short speech. Padalecki says this experience helped him learn to handle rejection as a young actor, and the lessons he’s learned from speech and debate have stuck with him ever since.
“One of the great things about debate is you’re forced to defend an issue you may not have entirely fleshed out your beliefs on,” he says. “I feel like it’s the best way to figure out yourself and how you really feel about something.”
The speech and debate community prides itself on challenging students to tackle complex issues in their interpretations and debates, Timmons says. Social issues such as suicide and transgender acceptance as well as political topics ranging from the 2020 U.S. presidential election to global human rights are all fair game. And depending on the event, students may only know exactly what they’ll be speaking on before they present their interpretation or argument.
The man also known as Sam Winchester says he’s sincerely proud of all the students and coaches competing this year, some of whom have worked toward this moment since elementary school.
“It can be more arduous, and it almost seems less glamorous on the outside but it teaches you so much about yourself on the inside,” Padalecki says. “Just the idea that these kids are tirelessly working to better themselves and learn more about themselves and about others at such a high level, is really impressive to me as a father of three.”