City’s High School Debate Teams Getting Creamed by Kansas Rubes

On a recent Saturday, Kevin Galligan, a preppy-looking, dark-haired senior from Manhattan’s Regis High School, was standing in a classroom at Syosset High School in Syosset, Long Island, in front of a group of 20 parents, teachers and fellow students. His mission: to convince them, in seven minutes, that the question “Are President Bush’s proposed faith-based initiatives a violation of the separation of church and state?” should be answered with a definitive yes . Mr. Galligan’s particular specialty, extemporaneous speaking, is perhaps the most difficult of speech and debate categories. Extempers, as they are known in the debate world, are handed their question, about a topic from current world events, just 30 minutes before they need to make their seven-minute case. Once they are up there, they are allowed no notes or written materials.

Mr. Galligan prevailed, which means he will be one of four extempers New York will send to the national championships of the National Forensic League in Oklahoma in June. But he will be doing more than testing his ability to think and talk on his feet. He will also be trying to erase what has become an embarrassing, if little-known, blot on New York’s brainy self-image. There has not been a national extemp champion from New York since 1996, and in the past three years New York has not even made it into the final round at the nationals. The problem goes beyond extemp: In all 17 categories of debate, New York has only produced one winner since 1996.

The states that have produced the most finalists in extemp in the past few years are Texas and Kansas. This does not sit well with New Yorkers, who like to think of themselves as the world’s best and smartest talkers. In a city with so many college-obsessed kids, $25,000-a-year private schools and neurotic parents, surely we can come up with a team of mini-Johnnie Cochrans and pint-sized David Boieses to talk the competition into stunned silence.

The New York schools with the best debaters are Regis High School, the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School and Syosset High School. Pricey private schools have not excelled, even though one might think that parents shelling out big bucks would want their kids to be well-trained in verbal combat. But the private-school teams tend to be tiny, and in some years don’t exist at all, because, to put it simply, those schools favor jocks. Robert Levinson, who has coached the debate squad at Bronx Science for 18 years, said, “We always say, ‘This is a team, not a club.’ If you are going to do it like a team, you will run into difficulty in the private schools, because every kid in those schools is doing sports–usually multiple sports–and it is almost impossible trying to work around that. Nightingale has established a team over the last three or four years that is run by a Bronx Science alum. Chapin is small now. We’ve never seen Trinity; we saw Brearley for a little while.”

If the New York teams have been bruised in the national championships, they have made a very respectable showing in the National Catholic Forensic League, another national circuit of debate tournaments that is composed mostly of schools east of the Mississippi. (You don’t have to be a Catholic school to belong.)

Sister Raimonde Bartus, the assistant principal of St. Joseph Hill Academy in Staten Island and a debate coach for 38 years, explained why New York fares better in the National Catholic Forensic League than the National Forensic League. “We haven’t done as well in the N.F.L. because most of the schools come from west of the Mississippi, and they have a more Western, laid-back style. We are very serious–our students speak and act like lawyers–but out West they are more laid back and make more jokes.”

There is, however, one state that has bedeviled New York in the NCFL: Florida. Yes, Florida. Or more specifically, Miami, home of nightclubs and bathing-suit contests. In the past 15 years, the New York diocese has won seven NCFL titles and the Miami diocese five, including nabbing the honors in 2000.

The top extempers in Florida and New York know each other quite well. They’ve competed with each other at a prestigious Harvard University tournament (where Mr. Galligan took first place in February), and at the equally prestigious Emory University tournament, where Rana Yared, a junior at Nova High School in Davie, Fla., recently took first place. Ms. Yared exchanges e-mail frequently with Andrew Korn, an extemper from Syosset High School. She said she thinks he’s the top extemper in New York. Mr. Korn said that Ms. Yared was impressive, but “she’s never blown me away.”

“The kids up and down the East Coast get to know each other and go to all these tournaments together,” said Jim Copeland, the national secretary of the N.F.L., from his office in Ripon, Wis. “They compete hotly, they dominate the East, but they don’t know about what’s going on in the West. Then they get to nationals, and all of a sudden there are all these kids from Texas and some of the western states like Kansas who they have never heard of.”

Of course, New York debate fans have theories about the lack of recent trophies–a favorite theory being that the southern and western parts of the country care more about style than substance. Aileen McGrath, a sophomore at Columbia University who qualified for nationals from New York in her junior and senior years at St. Joseph Hill Academy, said, “New Yorkers are more information-oriented. They are more concerned with getting all of the facts and saying as much as they possibly can to answer the question. The reason sometimes people from the South will do better than New York people at tournaments is because a lot of judges find the New York style more difficult to get used to. You are used to hearing somebody talk very slowly, and then suddenly there is someone who spits all these facts at you.”

“We are much more content-oriented,” said Bronx Science’s Mr. Levinson. “Kids don’t need to be as polished on the whole, because around here we are probably more likely to forgive a misstep on perfect speaking if the student obviously knows what they are talking about and has good, strong, deep analysis and content. And that is not true everywhere.”

“I want the whole package,” said Lisa Miller, the debate coach at Nova High School in Florida. “I want my extempers to have solid content and hard analysis, but I want them to package it in a way that is pleasurable to listen to. I don’t think there is any point in having a plethora of information if no one is listening.”

New Yorkers also point to the Florida Forensics Institute, a two-week summer camp held this summer at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “The reason they do so well is because most of them go to F.F.I.,” said Christina Alfonso, a senior at Stuyvesant High School. “If you are a Northerner from New York or Massachusetts, your parents don’t want you flying down or they don’t want to pay. But F.F.I. is very prestigious, so they get a lot of training over the summer and they follow the techniques throughout the year, and it leads to very successful extemp.”

Alexander Blenkinsopp, a senior at Regis who placed third in the New York qualifier, narrowly missing a trip to Oklahoma, had another theory as to why Florida has been so successful, having to do with how seriously a school takes itself.

“At Regis, before this year, none of our guys wore suits,” said Mr. Blenkinsopp, who will attend Harvard this fall. I was the first extemper to buy a suit; everyone used to just wear khakis and a blazer. I saw the suit as a threshold. Our guys still look at this as a lot of fun, but I didn’t get that feeling in Florida. I think they are taking it very seriously. Like your second box of extemp files is a threshold. But in Florida, it’s like a given.”

The files to which Mr. Blenkinsopp referred are an extemper’s secret weapon. They are large Tupperware bins that students drag to as many as 20 weekend tournaments a year, containing file folders labeled with such topics as “NAFTA,” “e-Commerce” and “Syria.” Each folder is stuffed with articles ( The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Moscow Times ) which the extempers paraphrase during a debate, quoting the date and publication–again, with no notes. Extempers spend up to four hours a day scanning the Internet for stories to put in their files.

Will it pay off in June? In the past five years, only one New Yorker–Sean Carmody, from Pleasantville in Westchester County–has made it into the final round in the nationals. “I know all about Sean Carmody,” said Mr. Galligan.

Even Ms. Yared, the Florida junior, knows of Mr. Carmody. “I’ve heard stories,” she said.

Mr. Carmody is currently a junior at Harvard. He took a year off to start an Internet company with a classmate, an extemper from Florida. He is currently working for a venture-capital firm while he finishes up his major in government. With a straight face, he will tell you he is going to be President one day. Asked what he plans to do after graduation, he replied, “I don’t know what I’m going to do between now and my Presidency.”