Public Forum debaters wrap up season at State Championships


Mira Bansal

From last Friday to Sunday, members of the school’s Public Forum (PF) Debate team competed virtually in The New York State Forensics League Championship, the last tournament of the year for many members of the team. At the tournament, teams debated the topic, “Resolved: Japan should revise Article 9 of its Constitution to develop offensive military capabilities,” Hanzhang Swen (10) said.

Several members of the team advanced to elimination rounds; in the Varsity division, Naomi Gelfer (10) and Daniel Pustilnik (10) made it to the quarterfinals, and Sean Lee (11) and Giselle Paulson (11) made it to the top 16, Swen said. In the novice division, James Kapadia (9) and Jaiveer Gupta (9) made it to the top 16, and Gillian Ho (9) and Carson Eisner (9) reached the top 32, she said.

Unlike other tournaments where members of the team can simply sign up to compete, debaters had to qualify for this tournament, Joann Yu (10) said. The tournament began with six preliminary rounds—two on Friday night and four throughout the day on Saturday—which were followed by four additional elimination rounds on Saturday night and Sunday, she said. In order to advance to the elimination rounds, debaters were required to have secured at least four wins in the preliminary rounds, Yu said. 

The debaters studied Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which states that Japan cannot have any official offensive military, Gelfer said. The article was put in place by the United States after World War II and has recently come into speculation due to the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia and threats of reunification from China, she said. If Japan or its neighbors were to be invaded, it would not be prepared to fight offensively or engage in foreign wars threatening its own security, she said.

The topics at debate tournaments always relate to current events, Kapadia said. “My knowledge of what’s going on in the world is greatly enhanced by debate,” he said. 

In order to prepare for this tournament, the team often met during I-period to discuss various strategies, Gelfer said. Juniors created spreadsheets with possible arguments opponents could make and assigned freshmen to write counterarguments, which helped them fully understand both sides of the debate, she said. “We have to anticipate things that the opponent might say—it’s kind of like fortune telling.”

The freshmen on the team typically prepare separately from the upperclassmen since they debate in the Novice division as opposed to the Varsity division, Paulson said. However, this year, the juniors worked closely with the freshmen, developing close relationships, she said. “We are very much one team.”

This tournament also differed from most as the judges did not release their decisions until after all of the preliminary rounds had ended, which kept the teams on edge, Paulson said. “It felt like the debate version of college decisions,” she said.

On the other hand, waiting for their results gave the team a chance to debrief and bond over their shared anticipation, Swen said. “We all jumped on Zoom and saw our results at the same time.”

Team bonding at tournaments has been a challenge this year, as tournaments have been strictly virtual due to COVID, Emma Chang (9) said.

Being unable to sit in the same room as his partner and opponents for other online tournaments made debate feel more impersonal, Kapadia said. For the state tournament, Kapadia and his partner, Gupta, were able to sit in the same room together while they debated, making the experience more enjoyable, he said. 

There are both pros and cons to debating online; one pro is not having to directly face opponents or judges while debating, a factor that can cause anxiety among debaters, Kapadia said. “On Zoom, there’s almost a sort of safety element because you’re not actually in the same room as these people,” Kapadia said. 

 While on one hand, the virtual format allowed debaters to look at their notes or get in some extra prep time, Emily Akbar (9) could not fully experience an authentic form of debate. “You don’t have the same thrill of going in person,” she said.

Some freshmen had already experienced in person tournaments from the school’s Middle Division (MD) Debate team, including Akbar. High school debaters are more focused on improvement, whereas debate in the MD was more centered around having fun, she said.

Debaters in the UD also have more ambition to succeed, Chang said. “In high school the team has a really strong sense of commitment,” she said.

Although not all members of the team did as well as they had hoped, the team was able to keep up a high sense of morale and end on a nice note at the State Championships, Chang said. “The motivation that we all share collectively helps drive us forward in every competition.”