Roundtable: An Inner City Debate Team's Rise to the Top

Author Joe Miller's new book, Cross-X, chronicles the rise of a predominantly black high-school debate team from one of Kansas City's worst neighborhoods. Two former standouts on the team, Ebony Rose and Marcus Leach, join the conversation.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today we have a special Roundtable. You hear a lot of sports stories about young black high school students who find hope. Well, that's also true in Joe Miller's new book, “Cross-X.” But there ends the usual Hollywood cliché. Basketball, football? No, that's not the bomb here. It's debate.

Miller's book follows Kansas City's Central High debate squad as they take on better-funded college prep school teams and win. I recently spoke with Miller and two former debaters - Marcus Leach and Ebony Rose. Miller and Leach joined me from the studios of KCUR in Kansas City and Rose from Louisville, Kentucky's Public Radio Partnership.

Miller told me that he first visited Central and met Marcus and Ebony when the state declared it academically deficient.

Mr. JOE MILLER (Author, “Cross-X”): And I went in pretty much planning to do a story about how the school was failing. When I got there I found that this debate team was among the best in the country. They had this trophy case full of trophies that they'd won beating, as you said, these top prep schools from around the country. And it just dawned on me that this is just an amazing story that needs to be told and retold until it takes root everywhere in the country.

CHIDEYA: Marcus and Ebony, describe to me who you were when you first got involved in the debate team. Marcus first. You know, who were you? How old were you? What were you like?

Mr. MARCUS LEACH (Debate Team, Central High): I was actually in my freshman year of high school and I was actually drifting away from Central High School. I had poor attendance but, no one noticed. I was able to get away with it. And at the same time I had a substitute teacher, Jane Reinhart(ph), and she offered me an opportunity to get out of the class with no teacher, and I took that opportunity. And it just happened to come into fruition.

I was on the debate team, I started to love it and it just took root from there. And the next four years I really enjoyed.

CHIDEYA: Ebony?

Mr. EBONY ROSE (Debate Team, Central High): I was a freshman in my health class. And Jane Reinhart and Brendan Dow(ph) came to my class and got me out of class and started talking about the successes of the debate team. How they get to travel, they're nationally recognized.

And she told me one day after school I should come in room 109 and give her a read in. And I did that. That was in the December of my sophomore year. And that next month when the next semester started, I was in debate. I guess I was an average sophomore - acne, had an Afro. Kind of like a debate groupie, I guess, for a semester.

CHIDEYA: Debate groupie.

Mr. ROSE: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Love that. I mean, you know, it seems to me that you guys really took this in the way a lot of people take in other sports. I mean do you consider it a sport, Marcus?

Mr. LEACH: Absolutely. And the state of Missouri considers it a sport so we're kind of stuck with the by-laws that apply to things like football and debate. So, we take it seriously. We're very competitive.

CHIDEYA: Ebony?

Mr. ROSE: I think it's sometimes in its own way better than, you know, physical popular entertainment sports like football or, you know, basketball. It takes you to a whole other level like a mental level. You know, like you get to read 18th century philosophers, you get to study economics, history, the social science. And stuff that, traditionally, we aren't able to study in schools we get to do that in debate.

So you get the adrenaline rush and all the chemicals in your brain start going faster and faster, your face turns red, your biotemperature increases.

CHIDEYA: And so who's your favorite 18th century philosopher?

Mr. ROSE: I go to the 19th century in Germany and say Karl Marx.

CHIDEYA: Wow. That's some strong stuff.

Mr. ROSE: Yeah. I try.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Joe, I'm going to go back to you. We've heard Jane Reinhart's name a couple of times, and she was the teacher of the debate class that Marcus…

Mr. MILLER: Still is.

CHIDEYA: Still is the teacher of the debate case, but specifically of the one that Marcus and Ebony were in and both have moved on now. Tell me kind of what your first impression was of her and how you two got to know each other.

Mr. MILLER: Well, my first impression was that she was a real standout in that school. There were two or three teachers there that really, really worked hard and kept their expectations high for the students. You know, she just didn't let her expectations drop at all. She never assumed that her students couldn't succeed at the top level in anything that they do.

And over time our relationship has deepened significantly, because I'm now assistant coach. I'm kind of distracted from the team a little bit this year, with the publicity over the book. But we work really well together as far as sort of covering the territory with working with these subsequent generations of debaters.

CHIDEYA: What really made you completely fall in love with this team and decide to, you know, break what's considered one of the cardinal rules of journalism: don't get involved?

Mr. MILLER: Well, two of the reasons are on the air with us right now. The first was Marcus. Early on in my journeys with the team, Marcus had decided that he wasn't going to go to this very major tournament called the Iowa Caucus. And nobody on the team could convince him to change his mind, he wanted to go to a video game contest, instead.

And I was listening to this getting more and more frustrated and finally, I turned off my tape recorder and I said, Marcus people are going to read about this in a book someday. It's going to be in a library and they're going to read it and say, my god, what an idiot. And he sort of looked at me and he said OK, I'll go.

So, that was sort of the first one that I broke the barrier on. And really, I reeled over that decision for a while. I thought I had ruined my project. But, as time went on I started to realize that it would be more of a deception to hide my attachment to these subjects, for lack of a better word, of my work. And as time went on my relationships with all of them evolved so much that I really couldn't - not get involved.

And that kind of brings me to Ebony. After, I had finished the one season that the book was going to be about, Ebony and I had become pretty close. He lived close to me in my neighborhood and we would hang out. We would often go to the library together and he'd check out books for his debate work and stuff like that. And he asked me just sort of innocently to help him, you know, do a debate case.

And the relationship just grew out of that to the point where, you know, I got really, really sucked in to the whole thing.

CHIDEYA: Now, to put this in context, you know, you mentioned that the school was put on this horrible academic watch list. They didn't really get the money that they expected as a result of that - they just got the stigma. And in America, there's also a lot of stigma about being black - young, black and male in particular.

Ebony, did this give you a chance to defy people's expectations or were you not even thinking about it in that way when you started?

Mr. ROSE: Well, yes and no. In my sophomore year, I debated Marcus Leach in a Shawnee Mission East tournament, I think, and that's in the book how nervous I was. And I was giving like one or two minute speeches. I was, you know, doing really bad in the cross-examination parts at the speeches. Marcus told me to man up and phrases…

CHIDEYA: - And phrases? Hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSE: And Ms. Reinhart, she just knew it was like some issues of race right then, you know, two African-American males claiming space. You know, this is what we're going to do and this is how the game is going to be.

And she used to tell us how we get voted down for, you know, stupid stuff or what we call a stupid - like color of tie not matching the shoes or, you know, one foot bigger then the other foot and other stuff like that.

And so when we go out to these tournaments outside of Missouri suburbia, Ms. Reinhart even told us one time, don't go off alone by yourself because, I don't want nothing to happen to you, you know. That being told to you for three years, you will recognize that there's something other than yourself.

CHIDEYA: Marcus, you know, what about you? Why did you get into the game? Did you do it to defy expectations? Did you do it to get smarter, stronger, better at talking to, you know, folks and convincing them to go out on dates? I mean, what was your motivation?

Mr. LEACH: Jane just had this way of giving you a reason to come to school with debate. It was an opportunity to get to college because without debate we'd be kidding ourselves to think Ebony and I had a chance of getting scholarships and full-ride scholarships to colleges.

And Jane made that a reality early on and she's like, listen it's possible. It's very feasible. Just follow me and I'll get you there. And she lived up to her promise on that. And as far as expectations and debate, it was sometimes disappointing, I mean, Brandon and I, we could be one of the best teams in the nation and we've still going to debate rounds and hear things like, oh, they're the urban debaters. This should be an easy win for us.

I mean, this is - we'd creamed those teams at the same time but it's frustrating at times to know you can win every battle at a national qualifier and go undefeated and still - instead of teams getting to know you as a serious contender, they still - there's a negative connotation with - okay, they're - this is just an activity for their school to increase dropout rates or something as opposed to understanding that we were serious. We were competitive.

CHIDEYA: But did you use that as fuel? Did you then turn it around?

Mr. LEACH: That definitely was motivation, especially for my partner, Brandon. I mean we love hearing things like that because we'd give that round. I mean, it would be a round that - where we had already qualified to elimination rounds and that was just like, okay, we're still going to go for the most vicious defeat of them all.

CHIDEYA: I was reading the book and this whole thing about making other teams cry, what's that about?

Mr. MILLER: That's kind of a Jane Reinhart thing, she's real competitive. And she wants her teams to not only win but, to, you know, just humiliate the other team to where they're in tears. And it happens a couple of times every season.

CHIDEYA: Do you ever regret that? Do you ever regret making somebody else cry?

Mr. ROSE: I don't. I don't.

Mr. LEACH: I regret it now that I'm a little older. Looking back upon it and it just sounds arrogant. But, I mean it's a way of letting those teams know the next time take you more seriously to go back to their schools, do their research, and come prepared for the next debate.

Mr. MILLER: Well, I think Jane is turning the tables really. You know, kids at Central know that kids at these suburban high schools are, you know, more endowed high schools kind of feel like they're above them. So, I think Jane sort of triggers in on that and says, well here's your chance to step up and make them feel like they're inferior.

Mr. ROSE: Can I go on what Marcus said, like couple of seconds ago?

CHIDEYA: Uh-uh.

Mr. ROSE: Ms. Reinhart did promise us something, my freshman year and my sophomore's. She said, I'll show you the world. I'll show you what's out there and open doors and opportunities for you. If you follow me, I'll make sure that happens. And I did, you know. She showed me the world from China and to the - I finally visited Europe even though it was like a stop. Fly over - (unintelligible)…

Mr. LEACH: And (unintelligible)

Mr. ROSE: - (unintelligible), in the Middle East, so she made her promises and she fulfilled that, you know.

CHIDEYA: Tell me more about that. How did you travel that way?

Mr. ROSE: The first trip was - gosh - I was a sophomore, I think, she got a grant. It's like the only five schools in the nation. And I didn't want to go at first. I was hesitant. I was, like, no, I'm not going for three weeks into nowhere. I'm not going to somewhere where lifestyles like ours in the United States. I'm going to go to France - I think I say in the book or Paris. I want to see the Eiffel Tower.

And then I made - somewhere between that and my junior year, I made up my mind and decided I wanted to go. We'd travel, you know to the rural areas. People backpacking. They're riding motorcycles and horses carrying people. And then we got to the city. The first thing we visit was Beijing. It was huge like 11 or 15 million people. It was like Chinese New York, you know. It was amazing.

CHIDEYA: Did you ever think, wow, you know here I am in China and people are ready for me, but when I go back home, they're not?

Mr. ROSE: Yeah. I could say that. We are somewhat celebrities I guess. People used to come out to us running and, like, take pictures with us. They would like tap us on the shoulder, ask us how's America? And they were nice, they used to ask us to play basketball when were just walking by, ask us where we're from. And when we go to debate in America, we weren't asked any of that; it's like so competitive. It's just like, everything is an end game, you know.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of end game, you mentioned Jeffrey, one of your fellow debaters, a couple of times.

Mr. ROSE: Yes.

CHIDEYA: And there's a moment in the book where Jeffrey talks about the U.N. -

Mr. ROSE: Yes.

CHIDEYA: - you want more, don't go to Liberia or East Timor where the war-torn foreign nation you've all been looking for. Just come over to the East side of Kansas City where the crime is thick and gritty. And then, he kind of ends with, I know you're asking what's this jive he's laying down? It's a metaphor to bring the resolution to the ground where we're all standing here in this debate round, where we have the power to change the same racism that plagues the U.N.

Mr. LEACH: That's deep.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. You know Joe, how was that received? When, you know just, this kind of influential free style?

Mr. MILLER: Well, mixed. In some cases with incredible praise and rewards, Jeffrey won a number of speaker awards when he changed to that speech. And in some cases, this extreme outrage. And we had horrible conflicts with several of the schools on the circuit, some of which were resolved in incredible ways, and some of which were not.

One example was a round that Ebony and Jeffrey had against Montgomery Bell Academy. And one of the students in that round got so angry at what Jeffrey was saying, what Ebony was saying about the activity and how the activity has these sort of norms that exclude diverse voices from it. That was the whole point of their case, their metaphor, that the U.N. has a power structure that excludes certain countries from the decision-making.

The same way that the debate community has these ways of engaging one another in debate that exclude voices like Jeffrey and Ebony's, or women's voices, too. So this student got so angry and it was just a nasty, nasty round.

I approached their coaches and tried to sort of offer an olive branch and then this kid from Montgomery Bell Academy, Jamie Bert(ph), contacted Ebony and Jeffrey and said, hey, you know, let's try and make up. And out of that developed this incredible friendship and exchange where the kids from Montgomery Bell Academy came to Central High School. They flew out to Kansas City and attended the school for a day. And then we returned the favor a few weeks later. And Jeffrey wound up giving his speech, the one that you read parts from, to the entire student body of Montgomery Bell Academy and to a standing ovation, I might add.

But in other instances, you know I'm still sort of fighting with some of the coaches in the circuit who are not pleased that our students are trying to stand up and speak with their own voices and address matters of race and class directly.

CHIDEYA: Marcus and Ebony, you know, you both used debate to springboard into college. What has it given you besides this ability to move forward with your higher education? Where does this skill that you have leave you as a person? Ebony first.

Mr. ROSE: It increased my reading comprehension skills. My speech impediment has diminished or wasn't as bad as it used to be. I could put my experiences on a resume, especially when I'm going to apply to the College of Education next month or next year. And I have, you know, great people that taught me like Joe and Jane Reinhart. This is just so much, you know.

CHIDEYA: Marcus, what about you? What does this leave you with?

Mr. LEACH: Well, debate gives you a thorough understanding of politics and by that, I don't mean just the research required to be efficient in policy making, also the aspects of social networking and just navigating through competitive systems, and it benefited me in nearly every avenue I've looked at. I can't actually find a time where I don't find myself using the skills that were honed by debate.

CHIDEYA: Do you think you can change the world through debate?

Mr. LEACH: Absolutely. You see, debate is one of those genuine grassroots movements where you have knowledge and especially new knowledge and it's disseminated amongst younger bodies across the nation like, from that, we find ourselves not only more active in debate but more active our communities and our lives. Our perspective of the world is changed.

CHIDEYA: Ebony, Joe, Marcus, thanks so much.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you.

Mr. LEACH: Thank you.

Mr. ROSE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Joe Miller is an investigative journalist and author of the new book “Cross-X.” Ebony Rose left Kansas City and is in his second year at the debate squad at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. And Marcus Leach went on to become the youngest student body president in the history of the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

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