BFA’s Debate Club Returns

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Jacob Holmes, Writer

This year Bellows Free Academy’s debate club has resumed operations, but to what extent, and for how much longer, is still very much up in the air.

Penelope Noza (‘24) was primarily responsible for the rebirth of the club.

“I started the club because I was really interested in getting better at public speaking,” Noza said.

And it’s not just Noza, a large number of students have expressed interest in the club this year.

“We got a good group of students. When we initially sent out the organizing information, we had 20 people, which is way more than we had before. We probably have about eight to 10 that have been very, very consistent about coming to debate practices…Tuesday was a snow day, the week before we actually formed five teams,” Doug Bell, the current adviser of the debate club, said.

According to Bell, the club was initially disbanded in 2018 due to a lack of support from the administration.

“The reason why the debate closed up [in spring of 2018] was that the school hasn’t supported it. I have supported debate and continue to out of my pocket. It costs us $50 a year to belong to it…You have to get all of your own judges…You have to get food for two meals. The school has given us the school to do it in, but we’ve had to get donations for everything else. I went to [former BFA Principal Chris Mosca] and I said ‘look, last year, I spent $3,500 out of my pocket to support debate for the school,’” Bell said.

The debate club has long been the poster child of high school clubs, so why has the school been so reluctant to give the team funds? According to Bell, it boils down to one thing: the fact that it runs through the entire school year.

“Debate is a Vermont Principals’ Association sanctioned event, so our governing body is the same as soccer and football. It is official, and it is nationally recognized, but I’ve gone to the school board, and my daughter [Cordelia Bell, (‘16)] went to the school board, and I went to the Principal [Mosca] and every time they say the same thing: ‘you have how many debates?’ The debate season starts in October…and March is usually our last debate and April will be when states is,” Bell said.

Because it runs year-round and involves so much travel, its cost is nothing to be scoffed at.

“The statement I’ve heard too many times to even count is ‘Oh my gosh if we were to have to pay you for all of that, you’d make more than the football coach!’ It’s like, yeah, if the football season lasted all year and if they had as many events as we have,” Bell said.

According to Bell, another thing that sets the debate team apart is their history of success.

“That first year, my daughter [Cordelia Bell, (‘16)] and her partner [Veronica Farr, (‘16)] went to Nationals. They were the highest-scoring novice team in the country. How many football teams have we ever had that’ve done that? How many football players have gone on to be professional football players? So why are we comparing the football team to the debate team?” Bell said.

According to Bell, the debate team also hosts a wealth of educational benefits for those who choose to participate.

“Debate is the richest thing that you can do to further your own knowledge as well as your own skills because it involves having to think on your feet, it involves having to defend yourself constructively and it involves having to speak and be understood, all the things that we don’t teach in school,” Bell said.

Bell went on to explain that the club doesn’t just teach students valuable lessons: it can also act as an outlet for natural aptitude.

“It is something which is a direct predictor of future success in students. Let me just tell you about the four students that were on my Debate Club initially: [Cordelia] graduated top of her class from Georgetown. She’s now working for the Department of Justice, antitrust division, waiting to go into law school, and she wants to go into Harvard, Yale or Georgetown Law School. And she’s decided to take an extra year to do that. She’s looking to change her current job to work on the January 6 Commission…Her [debate partner Veronica] graduated top of her class from BC [Boston College] and is already in law school. The first speaker in my second round team is in medical school, and the second speaker on my second team just got her degree in architecture, and she is running an architecture firm out in Arizona. So they are all highly-skilled people, and they are all aiming for the stars,” Bell said.

Unfortunately, some members of the community have dismissed this potential benefit as simply helping people who don’t even need it.

“There is the argument you hear from time to time, ‘Oh they’re already smart, they don’t need help,’” Bell said.

Regardless of what people believe, the fact remains: the future of BFA’s debate club is largely uncertain, and the lack of outside help isn’t the only issue.

“Unfortunately, I’m so busy with all of the other things I do here because I run the engineering program here, and I’m also the Performing Arts Center manager,” Bell said

Bell isn’t the only debate coach struggling this year. Across the state, debate coaches have been facing the ramifications of similar funding problems.

“I’m not alone in debate being under-supported. The lady that used to coach at CVU…they investigated for a year before they started the team, and CVU kind of took the BFA girls under their wing and taught them how to be debaters. And they were just amazing…it was so nice. The last year that I was in it, she said, ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore. I’m just paying too much for this.’”

Then, as always, there is the Covid issue. Due to the virus, there haven’t even been any tournaments this year, and the lack of information coupled with other Covid-related complications has meant that this year’s team isn’t fully-formed.

“Right now we’re a formative team’ we don’t even have fully-fledged debate teams yet. We have not competed in any debates between schools. We are trying to figure out what’s going on, and I heard a rumor from one of the people I talked to, they thought they were doing it online, but they’re not sure. All of the debate coaches that were with me when I was coaching before have all left debate; they have either left the schools they’re in, retired or have left debate because of personal issues. I have contacted them through their official page, and I’ve received no response from them.”

Still, at least things are off to a promising, albeit shaky, start. If the team manages to regain its footing Wesley Dunn, one of BFA’s newest English teachers, may be able to lend a helping hand in the future. 

“I’m getting near retirement, and Mr. Dunn, though I have never met him, has offered to come on as assistant coach, with the idea of perhaps in the future becoming the coach,” Bell said.

Brett Blanchard, BFA’s Principal, also expressed his willingness to potentially support the debate club.

“I would really like to see a BFA/NCTC Debate Team up and running…We could certainly explore how to get a debate team up and running, as well as a cost estimate,” Blanchard said.

Students also seem to find the club highly enjoyable, at least according to Noza.

“I love it. It’s been really fun to just sit down and research, and also voice our opinions,” Noza said.

For students who are intrigued, the club is open to anyone who wants to join.

“They could just talk to me or Mr. Bell, and soon Mr. Dunn [if they wanted to join]. As long as you’re interested and you have the time, I’d recommend it,” Noza said.