Debate Goes Digital

NA Speech and Debate Team President Arjun Narayan is unshakably optimistic at a time when most student organizations are struggling to keep their groups together.

Once+a+hive+of+interaction+at+close+proximity%2C+speech+and+debate+meetings+now+take+place+online+over+Zoom.

photo by Michelle Hwang

Once a hive of interaction at close proximity, speech and debate meetings now take place online over Zoom.

Michelle Hwang, Staff Writer

In pre-pandemic times, the tri-weekly practices of the North Allegheny Speech and Debate Team brought the building’s third floor to life in the after-school hours. Halls filled with the sound of debaters rattling off facts from their coveted cases, the sight of students pacing in front of walls while speaking to imaginary audiences, and the feeling of community that radiates from the team. 

This year, with COVID-19 affecting practically every part of a high schooler’s life, that same energy hasn’t been lost — it’s just been moved online. 

When entering the Zoom call through which practices take place: new members of the team should be forewarned; the intense nature of the nationaly ranked group remains alive and well even through the computer screen. Once signed in, it’s not unlikely that one of the debaters will be narrating a bizarre story about their love life, coupled with laughter and a few face palms from the listeners, while a separate, equally chaotic conversation takes place in the chat room. Of course, practice hasn’t even started yet.

Overlooking it all, with a smile on his face, will be Arjun Narayan, seasoned public forum debater and NA Speech and Debate President for the 2020-21 school year.

Arjun’s older brother, Siddarth, was a skilled debater, as well as an active member of the team, and ultimately Arjun’s gateway into speech and debate.

“I distinctly remember Harvard [National Forensics Tournament] when I was in like 4th or 5th grade,” the younger Narayan said. “I remember, even then, being dragged around to watch some great rounds, some great debaters, and from there I just thought it was fun.”

Perhaps his early start has something to do with his current success, or maybe it’s seeing how big of a role speech and debate played in his brother’s life, but there is no doubt that the team holds a very special place in Narayan’s heart. The adoration in his voice is clear, even over the phone in a recent interview.

Arjun Narayan (second from the left) has been centrally involved in speech and debate since his middle school years.photo by Sharon Volpe

“I love [the team], you know. I look forward to practices every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” Narayan explained. “Sometimes I even try to throw on other practices before big tournaments. It’s just something about being at practice with everyone else that’s really fun.”

But now that he is president, things are a bit different. 

North Allegheny Speech and Debate is an organization with both sizable numbers (consisting of over 150 members, NA Speech and Debate is easily one of the largest organizations at North Allegheny) and a sizable amount of prestige attached to its name. The team has been recognized by the National Forensic League as one of the best 12 teams in the country and regularly produces speakers and debaters who are ranked top in the nation. 

Additionally, North Allegheny is unique in that its speech and debate team is mostly student-led. Other than head coach Sharon Volpe, there are no other supervising teachers. The development of individual events as well as the advancement of the team as a whole is left to the students.  

Especially this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic surrounding all school-related activities with confusion and uncertainty, the pressure on the club’s president and leadership team is particularly heavy. 

However, there isn’t a hint of apprehension in Narayan’s voice as he describes his team members’ capabilities.

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into play in the event leader and officer roles on the team,” he said. “I think a lot of the people on the team are forward-thinking. They’re trying to do the best for the team. I think it’s really a cooperative effort to make the team the best it can be.”

Sometimes I even try to throw on other practices before big tournaments. It’s just something about being at practice with everyone else that’s really fun.”

— Arjun Narayan, Speech and Debate Team President

And the trust is mutual.

“I think he is, out of all the presidents we could have had during this time, the best equipped to deal with it,” John Catanzaro, a fellow debater, said.

Narayan’s chief strength is his utmost devotion to the team, a factor almost every team member seems to be aware of. There is a special mix of admiration and pride in the voices of those who talk about the president’s dedication. 

Teammate and friend Jenny Zhu recalls a time when Narayan had attended a novice tournament without participating. He wanted to give the newer debaters a chance at competing. When it turned out they hadn’t done very well, Narayan was there. 

“I remember the whole bus ride back,” Zhu said. “They would just look up to Arjun and be like ‘Arjun, look at this ballot. What in the world happened?’ And even though he was either their same age or just one year above them, he was acting like a dad and saying, ‘This is just one little fluke. It’s okay.’ Just pep talking them the whole ride back to NASH.”

Arjun (back row, center) enjoys a break with his teammates during a pre-COVID weekend tournament. photo by Sharon Volpe

Due to the unusual situation this year, human interaction has been kept near zero, and building the close relationships that are such a key aspect of speech and debate has become significantly more difficult. Nevertheless, Narayn is steadfast in his goals. 

“I hope that we can make the team fun,” he said, “and still make it engaging [and] interesting to the novices, even if we’re all doing practices at home.” 

Flanked by dependable friends and teammates, this year’s speech and debate president’s outlook on the challenge is nothing short of optimistic.

“I just hope to do the best I can,” he says. “[After all,] I’m working with some great people.”