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Resolved: Hanover Shines at Debate

Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Montpelier — With lawmakers out of session yesterday, Hartford High School students Tesia Lewis and Joe Sweeney sat in the Ways and Means Committee room and pushed aside left behind papers and replaced them with their “pro” and “con” binders.

The State House became center stage for 48 high school debaters as they competed in the Vermont Public Forum Debate State Tournament. The debate culminated several months of preparation and competition, in which the students traveled around the state two Saturdays of every month debating other students until they qualified for yesterday’s tournament.

At yesterday’s tournament, many of the students and judges found the State House rooms in their natural state, desks covered in papers and half empty diet coke bottles as if the legislators could walk back in at any minute.

As staff members went about their business and tiptoed in and out of the state Capitol’s rooms as if nothing was unusual, the high school debaters marshalled their best arguments, giving and taking verbal crossfire.

Students debated in three rounds in the morning, but didn’t know their scores or if they would place until the lunch break, when four semi-final teams were announced. But Lewis said she liked not knowing the scores because it kept her confidence high.

“I want to think I have a whole day,” Lewis said. “It’s a confidence booster, even if it’s an illusion. Confidence is very important because if you go in there without confidence, then you’ve already lost.”

The tournament was made up of 24 teams of two students — four from Hartford High and four from Hanover High School. Hanover is a member because at the time it started its debate team there wasn’t a league in New Hampshire it could join, and it petitioned Vermont to join its league.

During the morning rounds, Hartford sophomores Sarah Flint and George White disputed with Hanover seniors John Gehlbach and Simone Serat. The issue: Should the U.S. government should require its citizens to have health insurance?

The students sat across from each other in the Corrections and Institutions room while two judges sat at the end of a long table. During the crossfire portion, Gehlbach, of Hanover, argued that a mandate on health insurance would cause more harm to the health care system and would cause extreme government control.

“You can’t put a cost on a healthy society,” Flint, of Hartford, said.

“But a mandate would not create a healthy society,” Gehlbach said. “You haven’t proven that the mandate works.”

To prepare for yesterday, eight Hartford students met after school for the past two weeks and came to school to practice on Sunday. A few of the teams even met on their own on Saturday.

Between rounds, the teams gathered in the cafeteria. Hartford sat in the far right corner of the room, and Hanover snuggled up against a window on the opposite side of the room. Teams from across Vermont were represented, but Hanover was the toughest competitor, said Sweeney, a Hartford senior and team captain.

Among the Hanover students, the brother-sister duo of Justin and Katherine Chen were the toughest team to beat, Sweeney said. Sweeney and his partner have squared off against the Chen team several times this year, but only defeated them once. The Chens’ key to success, Sweeney said, was their two filing boxes full of evidence.

The plastic containers took two hands to carry and were full of color-coded folders with labels that read “pro case,” “general pro,” “economic impacts” and “good neutral sources.”

All Sweeney had were two manila folders, one labeled “pro,” the other “con.”

“They have unlimited amounts of evidence,” Sweeney said.

But Sweeney has a different style. He relies more on logic, and when he and his partner beat the Chens, he thinks it was because he had a good logical argument that overpowered their evidence. But that isn’t always enough, his partner, Lewis, said.

“You can never feel like you’re prepared enough,” Lewis said. “No matter how prepared you are, you can never know what they’re going to say to you.”

Hanover’s preparation style is different from Hartford’s. At Hartford, there is a debate class where many of the students are recruited. At Hanover, there is no debate class, only a debate club, and instead of practicing as a group after school like Hartford, Hanover students practice as individual teams at each other’s homes.

The Chen team had a particular advantage because they live together and their mother is the debate coach.

“We’ve taken over the dining room table with research,” Katherine Chen said.

“And we can chat about it over dinner,” her brother, Justin Chen, added.

As the day drew to a close, the Chens made it to the final round along with Hanover’s Gehlbach and Serat. The two teams debated in the House of Representatives chambers while more than 70 people sat silently and watched. In the end, the Chen brother-sister duo were named champions.

Katherine Chen founded the Hanover debate club when she was a freshman, and said this was the first time that two Hanover teams made it to the final round.

Their opponents can rest easy knowing that Katherine Chen, Gehlbach and Serat are all seniors and won’t be returning next year. But the youngest Chen is only a freshman and said he plans to be back next year.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

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