In Cross-X, journalist Joe Miller follows the Kansas City Central High School’s debate squad through the 2002 season that ends with a top-ten finish at the national championships in Atlanta. By almost all measures, Central is just another failing inner-city school. Ninety-nine percent of the students are minorities. Only one in three graduate. Test scores are so low that Missouri bureaucrats have declared the school “academically deficient.” But week after week, a crew of Central kids heads off to debate tournaments in suburbs across the Midwest and South, where they routinely beat teams from top-ranked schools. In a game of fast-talking, wit, and sheer brilliance, these students close the achievement gap between black and white students—an accomplishment that educators and policy makers across the country have been striving toward for years. Here is the riveting and poignant story of four debaters and their coach as they battle formidable opponents from elite prep schools, bureaucrats who seem maddeningly determined to hold them back, friends and family who are mired in poverty and drug addiction, and—perhaps most daunting—their own self-destructive choices. In the end, Miller finds himself on a campaign to change debate itself, certain that these students from the Eastside of Kansas City may be the saviors of a game that is intrinsic to American democracy.
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Joe Miller is a journalist living in Kansas City. His writing has appeared in The Pitch, Poets & Writers, Art in America, Art Papers, New Art Examiner, Rocky Mountain News, and Boulder County Business Report. He is the 2003 recipient of the President’s Award Recognizing Outstanding Contributions in Journalism, Kansas City Press Club. Cross-X is his first book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Jane Rinehart began the best and worst year of her teaching career in a familiar pose: hands on hips, lips pinched in a downward twist, one eyebrow cocked above the other. Seven kids slumped at their desks and scowled back at her. She only knew one of them—Ebony Rose, a gangly sixteen-year-old with a ghetto accent so thick people often had to ask him to repeat himself three or four times before they could understand what he’d said. The rest were strangers who wound up in her beginning debate class because the new hires in the school’s counseling office were, like so many administrators in Kansas City, Missouri’s notoriously dysfunctional school district, inept or lazy or both.
The previous spring she and her team of debaters canvassed Central High School in search of new recruits. They looked everywhere—in the cavernous lunchroom, the noisy study halls, the history classes full of bored teens scratching answers onto photocopied worksheets. They even checked the windowless room where cutups sit for hours on end to atone for their sins. (“In an inner-city school, in-school suspension is one of the best places to find good debaters,” Rinehart often said.) They tracked down tips from fellow students and teachers who had learned years ago to steer smart kids to Rinehart’s program, one of the few bright spots in a school where more than half the incoming freshmen drop out before their senior year. Within a few weeks, she hand-delivered a list of eighteen prospective debaters to the counseling office well before the cutoff date.
But they lost it. So she turned in another. She even offered to type the names into the school’s computer system herself. “No, no,” one of the counselors told her. “We can handle it.”
They couldn’t. When Rinehart opened up her schedule packet a few days before the start of school, she found that not one of her recruits had been enrolled in beginning debate. When she brought this to the attention of her assistant principal, the administrator shrugged. “They’re new,” her boss said of the school’s counselors. “What do you expect?”
As Rinehart sized up her meager prospects, a girl with long, skinny braids threw open the door and marched two steps into the room. Rinehart turned and stared her down.
“This ain’t no required class, is it?” the girl asked.
“This isn’t any?” Rinehart replied without hesitation.
The girl’s shoulders dropped. “Do we gotta take this class?!”
“You don’t gotta take anything.”
“I mean . . .” the girl sputtered.
“This isn’t a mandated class, if that’s what you want to know.”
“That’s what I wanted to know.”
“But if you only go through life doing the minimum,” Rinehart said as the girl plopped herself into one of the twenty empty desks, “the minimum is all you’ll get out of life.”
Rinehart crossed her arms and glanced around her classroom, which, only two hours into the school year, looked as if a gale had blown through and tossed around all the desks and books and files. Room 109, the one-window headquarters for Central’s debate program, contains too much bustle to be as orderly as a typical high school room. Even before the school year started, with summer’s free days dwindling, kids flitted in and out of Rinehart’s domain to seek advice on the cases they were building for the coming season or simply to escape the bleak streets of Kansas City’s East Side.
Rinehart moved to the dry-erase board, uncapped a purple marker, and wrote, “Resolved: That the federal government should substantially increase public mental health services for mental health care in the United States.” She turned to face the students, who were stretched so far back in their chairs they were nearly horizontal. Each kid grudgingly wore a baggy version of the school’s mandatory uniforms: khaki or navy blue pants with navy blue or white shirts.
“I’m Mrs. Rinehart,” she said cheerily, trying to shake off her bad mood. “This is the debate class. You are the beginners. You are the novices. You are the hope for the future. You are the ones who are going to win trophies like this.” She gestured toward a handsome copper chalice rising from an old audiovisual cart stuffed with books and papers and plastic cups full of pencils and pens. “We run with the big dogs.”
A few of the kids chuckled at this short white woman who stood before them in her prim silk blouse and matching marigold skirt, trying to talk trash.
“We do,” she insisted, hands back on her hips.
She rattled off an abbreviated list of accomplishments: the trophy case near the principal’s office stuffed with shiny metal; the victories at out-of-state tournaments; the scholarships. “Last year one of my top debaters, Donnell, got a full scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa because of his debate skills,” she said. “All he has to do is argue in college and they pay for him to go.”
“I want some of that,” said a girl with bright red hair sprouting from the top of her crown.
“Yeah,” Rinehart said. “All he has to do is argue with attitude.”
She paused to let that sink in. Even for cocky kids, it was difficult to fathom such success at a school like Central. Over the past half century, the school had become a nationally recognized symbol for the despair of urban education. It was the flash point of Kansas City’s riots in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s the school’s security guards carried handguns as they roamed the halls. Through the 1980s and ’90s, ABC, 60 Minutes, scores of newspapers, and even Jesse Jackson paid visits to Central—all to tell virtually the same stories of failure or slim hope. And then, in 2001, as if for final emphasis, Missouri education officials put the school on alert, declaring it “academically deficient.”
The students stared at Rinehart blankly. “At this point,” she continued, “if you don’t know anything about debate, don’t worry about it. That’s my problem. If you don’t know anything about it in six months, then maybe it’ll be your problem. But for now it’s my problem.”
She told the students to form a circle, and they sluggishly scooted their desks across the tile floor. “Debate is basically arguing,” she said, sitting down, crossing her legs off to the side, and leaning forward on the desk. “And this is what we’re going to be arguing this year.” She cocked her head toward the board and again read aloud the resolution to improve mental health services in the United States, the topic selected by coaches from across the country for the year ahead.
“What does that mean?” she asked, facing the kids again. “What is mental health?”
The teens blinked back at her.
Finally one boy offered, “Health is healthy.”
“Your brain,” added another.
“People who have mental health problems, what do we call them?” Rinehart asked.
After another long pause, one student looked up and said, in a bored voice, “Mentally ill.”
“Don’t we have some not-so-nice words for them?” Rinehart asked.
Silence. Then a skinny boy with cornrows muttered, “Retarded.”
“Okay,” she said. “Retarded. What else?”
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