As debaters, the Belmont secondary team is the quintessential underdog.
A small gang of bright students launched the club this year knowing little about the techniques of competitive debate. They faced private school students trained by coaches and who sharpened their skills in debate classes.
But despite starting from scratch, the Belmont team has held their own in four debates over the school year. Two of the team members performed well enough to earn a slot in the provincial championships in Langley this weekend.
Cole Gagne, 17, with teammate Taylor Schulte, will be debating restorative justice in the Canadian legal system for the provincial competition. “I’m not nervous,” Gagne said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s the thrill of the argument. Whatever happens happens.”
Grade 12 students Elliott Fuller and Sara Sarbar started the club in September as a way to engage more students in school activities, and with an idea of creating a lasting legacy for Belmont. If the high school ever had a debate team, it was decades ago.
“Debate is very interesting,” Fuller remarked. “It’s intellectual, it’s a good way to challenge yourself. And it’s something we wanted to leave behind at Belmont.”
When the team formed, an adult mentor offered a few tips and tricks about debate, but for the most part, the students learned through trial and error. Typical debate formats feature impromptu and set topics, where two-person teams devise arguments for and against a subject, which could be anything from public policy to military conscription.
Their first debate at Oak Bay high school was tough, they admit.
“At first it was learning to swim and drowning. We stumbled at bit but brushed ourselves off,” Gagne said smiling. “We all improved hugely in subsequent debates.”
“It was nerve-wracking,” said Jill Lambeth, one of the few Grade 11 students on the team, and who earned the nickname “The Annihilator.” “But after one event we started improving right away.
“It’s like a sport,” she added. “There is an adrenaline rush before and you feel an accomplishment after.”
The team went onto competitions at Shawnigan Lake school, the University of Victoria and regional finals at Glenlyon Norfolk school. The Belmont squad learned fast that every detail counts in a contest overseen by fickle judges. At one event, a judge pointed out that Gagne’s white socks clashed with his dark pants.
“It’s how you stand, if you fidget with your hands, how you speak,” Lambeth said.
“All the components, the presentation, all the nuances matter,” added Belmont teacher Danielle Huculak, who has judged at a few debates. “Definitely with very strong debaters, all these things matter.”
Part of the competition strategy too is interjecting with questions designed to trip up the speaking team. “(Opponents) can ask questions to target weakness,” Lambeth said. “There are lots of really good questions.”
“It’s an integral part of the process,” Fuller said. “We just try to twist the question into our argument.”
Belmont’s self-starting, self-taught team should be proud, Huculak said – it was the only public school at several of the debates, including the regionals at Glenlyon Norfolk.
“The fact that two Belmont students got into provincials is a huge success. It’s a testament to their work and commitment, without really any support,” Huculak said. “A lot of (private schools) hire coaches or have debate class at school. Little old Belmont did it on its own.”