PALMER — Savannah Stephens is not just the only member of the Palmer High School debate team to go to state competition – she’s the entire team.
Still, the 16-year-old sophomore has qualified for state UIL in Lincoln Douglas debate, doing most of the preparation without the aid of a team member or coach. Reading a lot of handbooks and with the help of her parents, she said she prepared the best she could. Her efforts placed her third in district and second at the regional competitions.
Describing herself as “nervous but excited,” Stephens leaves Thursday for the state competition at the University of Texas in Austin.
“Lincoln Douglas is a morals debate and that makes it a lot harder because you can’t really debate fact, you have to debate what you feel as a person,” Stephens said. “All in all, it’s pretty tough.”
Learning the techniques is one aspect of Lincoln Douglas debate, but Stephens’ dilemma has been rehearsing alone. She said she tries to do some form of research or study at least once a day and is working extra hard until the state competition. The trials of learning how to debate without a rebuttal partner have not deterred her though.
Lincoln Douglas debate saw its inception when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas campaigned against each other for a U.S. Senate seat in 1858. UIL participants research a pre-determined subject and have three minutes to state his or her case in the two-person debate. The fast-paced match requires quick wit and composure and each debater tries to catch the other in a trap, where the person has no stance. Debaters use a flow chart to keep track of the points being made.
Palmer High School doesn’t have a debate class, so last month theater teacher Phil VanAlstyne started working with Stephens, who he’s also coached in track and theater. He describes her as a “good worker” and said she’s proven herself.
“When the chance was there to jump in and work with her, I did,” VanAlstyne said. “She’s totally capable of placing at state. She’s grown and learned so quickly.”
She’s also secured some recent help from the Ferris High School debate team, which has two members going to state in 3A competition. They’ve invited her to practice with them, with Stephens – who will compete in 2A for Palmer – saying the most effective tool she has is watching others debate.
“They are teaching me so many things and it’s just been a complete blessing to have them,” Stephens said of the Ferris debaters. “Getting a new perspective on (debate) really helps.”
With the help of her middle school teacher, Pat Chandler, Stephens said she learned a lot about speaking in front of a group of people.
“I was in impromptu speaking and I think that was what got me through most of debate,” Stephens said. “We have an amazing UIL program in the middle school and I think that’s what really benefited me the most.”
She wants to practice law and serve as a judge after finishing an education at Rice, Pepperdine or Vanderbilt University. Learning the methods of debate, she said, will help her in her career.
“I saw ‘Legally Blonde’ at a young age and decided I wanted to do something that involves law,” Stephens said. “I grew up watching ‘Jag’ and ‘Law and Order’ and courtrooms and I was interested in doing justice.”
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