They’re the pride and possibly the fear of any parent – teenagers who are exceedingly smart and can argue just about anybody under the table.
Two Grade 12 girls from Pacific Christian School fit that bill, and are the only students from Vancouver Island competing in this year’s senior national debate championships in Calgary.
The team of Virginia Shram, 18, and Heather Cape, 17, under the guidance of teacher and coach Ruth McGhee, plowed through strong competition in February to lock the top spot on the Island. Then out of 38 debate teams at provincials in March in Trail, the girls earned fourth, and a chance to compete at nationals.
The top five teams go to the championships. The Glenlyon Norfolk school team and 2012 provincial champions David Denhoff and Christian Taylor came in second overall.
“We just wanted to do our best for our last year in high school,” Shram said. “It was a fun trip. But until the final round, we had no idea how we did.”
Indeed, the Saanich-based Pacific Christian team sat through the final debate, a banquet dinner and speeches before judges announced the rankings – it was a long few hours not knowing if they were third or 33rd.
“I didn’t think we had a chance, and then Virginia came in first place for the speaker (award),” Cape remarked, referring to Shram’s No. 1 individual ranking out of 76 competitors. “It took a while to sink in we were going to nationals.”
“We were in shock. It made the ride back more at ease than the ride there,” Shram added.
The girls may be modest, but beyond their regular workload, which includes college-level advanced placement classes, they regularly meet with McGhee to talk about current events and learn debate strategies to pick apart opposing teams’ arguments.
They also regularly brush up on current events through reading publications like the Economist magazine and the Globe and Mail, watching TED talks and having documentary movie nights. Like the provincials, the national debate has a predetermined topic – in this case, the issue of allowing doctors to prescribe placebos – and four rounds of impromptu debates, which can be any topic, but tend to touch on current events.
“I like impromptu better, it’s more like an adrenaline rush,” Shram said. “You concoct you argument, bolster your position and then tear apart the other team.”
Shram, a veteran debater, started in the PCS debate class in Grade 8 and went to junior nationals in 2009. “I remember I liked debating in elementary school, and I enjoyed going that (debate) class in Grade 8, and I’ve taken it ever since,” she said.
Cape joined the team last year after demonstrating natural leadership and debating talent in the model UN club.
“It was clear from the model UN she had the debate chops,” McGhee said. “Heather complements Virginia very well. And Virginia always wanted to get to senior nationals before the end of high school.”
For the past few weeks, the girls have brushed up on their medical law and ethics, and legal precedents from other countries surrounding doctors prescribing placebos. They’ll need to construct arguments for and against, and are honing their skills on spotting the many rhetorical fallacies that crop up in opponents’ speeches.
“We research a lot of precedents and legal cases in Canada,” Shram said. “And find statistics. Any topic is more interesting after you start researching … when you get into the different implications.”
Both girls say they have a good a chance as any of the 80 teams at the senior nationals, and that it’s actually less pressure than heading into regionals or provincials. At the same time, both find it sad that this will be their last debate before graduating high school.
Cape is entering engineering at the University of Victoria and Shram is accepted at McGill University and UVic, but hasn’t selected a major.
“The stress is in regionals and provincials on wanting to qualify for nationals. Now there’s nothing to qualify for. We just have to do the best we can,” Cape said. “This is our last year and our last debate tournament.”
For their last competition, they do plan to create stylish team uniforms, Shram said – “something involving tearaway track pants and rhinestones.”
The senior debate nationals are in Calgary from April 25 to 29.