Four hours later his alarm clock woke him. Half-asleep, he showered and put on the black suit he’d bought with his mom at West Ridge. He tied one of his father’s two ties. He drove the short distance to Topeka High, pulling up beside his coaches, Spears and Mulroney, who were looking over an AAA map, their breath visible in the streetlight. The former was drinking coffee from his large thermos; the latter sipped, as ever, her Diet Coke. Other formally dressed adolescents wheeled large plastic tubs from the school and loaded them into the backs of two nearby vans. He did not condescend to move his own tub; an underclassman would take care of it. He saw his partner, Joanna, and nodded in greeting; they weren’t friends; their alliance was purely tactical. Once in the van, she wanted to talk strategy, but he leaned his head against the cool window, watched the rise and fall of telephone wires in the dark, and soon he was moving through tract housing in his dreams. He woke up when they pulled off the highway to stop for breakfast at McDonald’s, familiar contours of the molded seating.

Dawn was breaking as they arrived at Russell High School. He would normally have skipped such a small tournament, but because Russell was Bob Dole’s hometown, and because Bob Dole was running for president, the Russell Invitational would this year draw the best teams from across the state; the logic was unclear to him, but Mulroney had insisted they attend. From similar district- issued vans and buses, other awkwardly costumed adolescents were unloading their own tubs, hauling them across the cold parking lot to the school’s main entrance. When he and Joanna walked through the doors, their would-be competitors made way.

He found the high schools strangely altered on the weekends, the spaces transformed when emptied of students and teachers and severed from the rhythms of a normal day. The classrooms, with their hortatory posters, be the change you want to see, their rows of empty desks, equations or dates or stock phrases left on chalk- or dry-erase boards, made Adam think of abandoned theatrical sets or photographs of Chernobyl. He could occasionally pick up traces of Speed Stick or scented lip gloss or other floating signatures of a social order now suspended. As they walked down the main hall of Russell High he tried various combinations on the lockers. He touched a wrestling state-championship banner hanging in the foyer with the distance of an anthropologist or ghost.

They gathered for a brief welcome assembly in a fluorescently lit cafeteria that smelled of industrial-strength bleach. The host coach made announcements while they looked over their brackets. Then the teams dispersed, carts of evidence in tow, to the assigned classrooms where a judge and timekeeper awaited.

He let Joanna lead him to their room. The daughter of two Foundation neurologists, Joanna was a short, smart, Ivy-bound senior who scored, as she would let you know, a 1600 on the SAT. She compiled almost all of their research, having attended a ‘debate institute’ at the University of Michigan over the summer to get a head start on the competition. (The topic this year was whether the federal government should establish new policies to reduce juvenile crime; their plan argued that strengthening child-support enforcement would do so in various ways.) Adam’s contribution to prep work consisted of skimming The Economist during debate class. His strength was thinking on his feet, exposing fallacies; his cross-examinations were widely feared.

These early rounds were a formality; they dispatched low-ranked teams in front of lay judges, often the reluctant parents of other debaters. That weekend at Russell a couple of sophomores tried to surprise them by running a version of their own plan against them, having reconstructed it from notes taken during elimination rounds, which were open to spectators.

Adam rose, smoothing his father’s tie, to cross-examine the obviously nervous first affirmative speaker; his opponent resembled a waiter in his white shirt, black slacks. They stood facing a judge – competitors do not look at one another – who could barely fit into the combination chair and desk; he sat with his arms crossed, glasses resting atop his bald head, begrudgingly making notes on a legal pad.

‘Could you please repeat this year’s resolution?’

‘Repeat it?’

‘Yes, please.’

‘Resolved: that the government –’

‘The federal government,’ Adam says, as if he’s embarrassed to have to help him. ‘Take your time,’ he adds, knowing it will sound like politeness to the judge, and to his opponent, infuriating condescension.

‘Resolved: the federal government should establish a program to substantially reduce juvenile crime in the United States.’ There’s the slightest tremor in his voice.

‘Why was child support established?’

‘To support children, obviously’ – the origin of the sarcasm is anxiety – ‘after their parents get divorced.’

‘Actually, unmarried parents accrue the same child-support obligations in most states.’ Adam has no idea if what he’s said is true. He makes a subtle show of ignoring, of transcending, his opponent’s tone. ‘But let’s set that aside. It sounds like you agree the program you propose to strengthen was not primarily intended to substantially reduce juvenile crime.’

‘No, I mean, that was among its intentions.’

‘Do you have evidence supporting that assertion?’ His tone makes it clear that he hopes his opponent does, that he would welcome that debate; it also communicates to the judge that the round is over if he doesn’t. (The ballot instructs the judge that ‘topicality’ must be proved by the affirmative team. He and Joanna can crush these debaters in a variety of ways, but he’ll start by seeing if his opponent trips himself up on this prima facie issue.)

‘The evidence is that it cuts crime. That’s why the advantages of our plan are –’

‘So you’re saying anything that has the effect of reducing crime is topical?’

‘No. It has to be federal, a federal program.’

‘So if I advocate that the federal government build nuclear power plants and it constructs them shoddily and that causes horrible pollution and the pollution produces disastrous health effects and mass death ensues and crime is thereby reduced, that’s a topical resolution?’ The judge smiles – both at what Adam’s said and at his delivery. And he has reminded the judge of his distrust of the Feds.

‘Of course not,’ angry now.

‘Why? Because it has to be an intended effect of the policy?’

‘Okay, sure.’

‘Do you have any evidence that this was an intended effect?’

‘It’s common sense.’ He should argue that – regardless of why child support was established in general – they, the affirmative team, are now intending to expand the policy to reduce crime, arguably meeting the conditions of topicality. But he’s too frazzled.

‘I think what’s common sense is that child support is designed to equalize financial burdens on parents following a separation. And that even if this equalization somehow complicated crime-reduction efforts, there would still be substantial arguments for its importance. And’ – he realizes that, for the average citizen of Russell, Kansas, he might have just made a feminist argument; his pivot is without detectable hesitation – ‘I can think of strong arguments against that kind of federal intervention in private relationships. The point is that’s not the topic of this year’s debate.’

‘I – Look, you run this case all the time and topicality never –’

‘Excuse me, I need to stop you there – you want the judge to award you this round because we have won other rounds with a similar case?’ He’s offended on behalf of debate itself.

‘I’m not saying that. I’m –’

‘That’s an interesting idea, that what’s argued in previous rounds should be relevant, can be used against us; should you lose this round arguing for the resolution since you presumably argued against it in a prior debate?’ The judge is smiling again.

‘No, of course not, but –’

‘And, incapable of defending the topicality of your policy before the negative team’ – he’s deadly serious now, a prosecutor on Law & Order going in for the kill – ‘you’re bringing up the fact that you copied your plan from our affirmative rounds.’ A pause. ‘ Your defense against failing to meet the burden of topicality is plagiarism?’

Brief silence in which the judge, eyebrows raised, makes a note.

‘I’m just saying it’s a topical plan,’ he says meekly, the round already lost.

At Russell High it was not until the semifinals, when judging would be undertaken by a panel of three college debaters, that the competition really began. He and Joanna were on the affirmative side, facing a fairly formidable team from Shawnee Mission West. The room – a science classroom: microscopes on a big table in the corner, multiple sinks – was full: eliminated debaters and their coaches had become the audience. When the round was about to start, silence fell; for the first time Adam heard the aquarium filter running in a tank he hadn’t noticed against the wall. He could just make out some slowly drifting yellow forms.

And now Joanna stands to deliver the first affirmative speech. For a few seconds it sounds more or less like oratory, but soon she accelerates to nearly unintelligible speed, pitch and volume rising; she gasps like a swimmer surfacing, or maybe drowning; she is attempting to ‘spread’ their opponents, as her opponents will attempt to spread them in turn – that is, to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule among serious debaters being that a ‘dropped argument’, no matter its quality, its content, is conceded. (Competitive debaters spend hours doing speed drills – holding a pen in the teeth while reading, which forces the tongue to work harder, the mouth to over-enunciate; they practice reading evidence backward so as to uncouple the physical act of vocalization from the effort to comprehend, which slows one down.) The judges hunch over their legal pads, producing a flowsheet of the round along with the competitors, recording argument and counterargument in shorthand, making little or no eye contact with the speakers. During the brief intervals wherein their pens are idle, they twirl them around their thumbs, a signature habit of debaters.

To an anthropologist or ghost wandering the halls of Russell High School, interscholastic debate would appear less competitive speech than glossolalic ritual. See the cystic-acned first negative speaker from Shawnee Mission – his dress more casual, typical of the rich kids from Kansas City – reading evidence at 340 words per minute to support his claim that the affirmative plan will overburden family courts, setting off a catastrophic chain of events. He lets each page fall to the floor when he’s finished, along with drops of sweat. He inhales sharply, shouts out another tag line – ‘Overburdened courts lead to civil collapse’ – then reads more evidence, getting briefly entangled in a stutter that, at such volume and such speed, makes it sound as though he’s having a seizure or a stroke. As time runs out, he sums up his arguments, although few of the uninitiated could understand him: Gregor evidence points to back-backlogged courts as result of increased child support enforcement judicial overload leads to civil collapse collapse leads to nuclear conflict China or North Korea nuclear strike in ensuing power vacuum out-out-outweighs whatever benefits affirmative plan offers and and and and Stevenson proves affirmative plan no solvency regardless because resistance from from internal agencies blocks imple-implementation must vote no on disadvantage impact alone but but even if you you consider plan as plan no solvency 1AC key source for Georgia courts not not applicable to fed program only state level so there is no way to vote but negative.

The spread was controversial; if it happened in front of lay judges, there was shock, complaints. More than one highly ranked team had misjudged its judges and been eliminated in early rounds for speaking drivel. Old-timer coaches longed for the days when debate was debate. The most common criticism of the spread was that it detached policy debate from the real world, that nobody used language the way that these debaters did, save perhaps for auctioneers. But even the adolescents knew this wasn’t true, that corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time: for they heard the spoken warnings at the end of the increasingly common television commercials for prescription drugs, when risk information was disclosed at a speed designed to make it difficult to comprehend; they heard the list of rules and caveats read rapid-fire at the end of promotions on the radio; they were at least vaguely familiar with the ‘fine print’ one received from financial institutions and health-insurance companies; the last thing one was supposed to do with those thousands of words was comprehend them. These types of disclosure were designed to conceal; they exposed you to information that, should you challenge the institution in question, would be treated like a ‘dropped argument’ in a fast round of debate – you have already conceded the validity of the point by failing to address it when it was presented. It’s no excuse that you didn’t have the time. Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives; meanwhile, their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly about values utterly disconnected from their policies.

Joanna was too fast for the Shawnee Mission kids; Adam spent most of the semifinal round pointing out which of her arguments his opponents had dropped. In the finals, when they were back on the negative side, they hit rivals from Lawrence High. When they’d lost to Rohan and Vinay in the past, it had been Adam’s fault; they were as well prepared as Joanna. But that day, for whatever reason, his mind was particularly swift.

And that day at Russell High as he enumerated in accelerating succession the various unpredictable ways implementation of his opponents’ plan would lead to nuclear holocaust (almost every plan, no matter how minor, would lead to nuclear holocaust), he passed, as he often passed, a mysterious threshold. He began to feel less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him, that the rhythm and intonation of his presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that he no longer had to organize his arguments so much as let them flow through him. Suddenly the physical tension he carried was all focused energy, a transformation that made the event slightly erotic. If the language coursing through him was about the supposedly catastrophic effects of ending the government’s Stingray surveillance program or the affirmative speaker’s failure to prove solvency, he was nevertheless more in the realm of poetry than of prose, his speech stretched by speed and intensity until he felt its referential meaning dissolve into pure form. In a public school closed to the public, in a suit that felt like a costume, while pretending to argue about policy, he was seized, however briefly, by an experience of prosody.

Then he was back in the cafeteria for the award ceremony, eating Peanut M&M’s a freshman had fetched him from the machine, half-listening as Coach Spears tried to convince him that professional wrestling was real: I’ve seen the blood; I’ve been close to the cage. Adam nodded as he chewed. Everyone fell quiet when the host coaches arrived to announce the final results and hand out medals.

But there was a commotion around the cafeteria doors. They swung open and several reporters hurried in; a cameraman quickly set up a bright light on a tripod, shouldered his camera. Then, to the growing surprise of the assembled debaters, men who were unmistakably bodyguards entered the room, looked around, coiled tubes dangling from earpieces. He glanced at Coach Mulroney, who displayed a knowing smile. Finally, Senator Bob Dole appeared, the seventy-three-year-old Russell native who was less than a month away from being crushed by Bill Clinton, a landslide victory for the Democrat that would confirm that cultural conservatism was giving – had all but given – way to the reign of more liberal baby boomers. It would confirm that history had ended.

A few gasps of recognition, some applause. Dole, as ever, held a pen in his largely paralyzed right arm and waved his awkward wave with the left. He walked, flanked by aides, to the front of the cafeteria and shook the left hand of the host coach, who said, beaming, that the next president of the United States would be handing out the medals to the winners of this year’s Russell High School Invitational. Before the medalists were recognized, Senator Dole wanted to say a few words.

‘I’m not much of a debater myself,’ he said, maybe expecting laughter, which didn’t come, ‘but I place great value on the skills that you are all developing here today.’ Even for a politician, Dole spoke haltingly. (From his chair in the audience, Adam involuntarily pictured Dole holding the pen between his teeth, reading backward; he pictured Dole trying and failing to do the debater’s twirl with the cold, incapable hand. Then he pictured his grandfather’s paralyzed left arm in Rolling Hills.) ‘You are the future leaders of America and I am very glad that you are all here improving your ability to communicate, to persuade. That’s so important. In our democracy. Crucial. And learning so much about government and policy. Wonderful. I’m honored to get to be here and to let you know you’re all winners in my book for the hard work you’re doing. It will carry you far. Will be seeing some of you on Capitol Hill.’

He was given an index card from which he read the names of the third-place team, the debaters rising to accept their medals, pausing for photographs with the senator. He butchered Rohan’s and Vinay’s surnames; they stood almost apologetically.

Now I am going to show you a picture and I’d like you to make up a story about it. We call this the Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT. A story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a black-and-white photograph that appeared on the front page of the Topeka Capital-Journal. (Who is this unsmiling seventeen-year-old boy whose hair is drawn into a ponytail while the sides of his head are shaved, a disastrous tonsorial compromise between the lefty household of his parents and the red state in which he was raised? His left hand is almost touching Dole’s right, which clutches the pen; around his neck the teenager wears a medal won by speaking a nearly private language at great speed. The senator, who often refers to himself in the third person, whose campaign is advised by Paul Manafort, will be the only former presidential candidate to attend the Republican convention in 2016.) What are these people in this picture thinking? Feeling? Start by telling me what led up to this scene.



The above is an extract from The Topeka School, available now from Granta Books.

Photograph © Olesya Shelomova / Adobe Stock

Two Poems