Forensics offers students mental workout

Nine Wa-Hi team members will go to a tournament at Stanford University.

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Posing bills and questions while assuming elected positions as the honorable Sens. Nathen Myers, left, and Anna Apostolidis, Congress was in session Saturday morning at Walla Walla High School as mock debate sessions took place with Wa-Hi and other debate team schools.

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Battling the stopwatch and the eventual drowning out of her words by the pounding of the gavel, Walla Walla High School debate team member acting as the honorable Sen. Anna Apostolidis, center, delivers her words to the floor during a mock congressional session at Wa-Hi on Saturday morning.

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JEAN TOBIN

WALLA WALLA - In contrast to the physical battle that will play itself out today in Indianapolis before 200 million fans watching via TV, online streaming and on cellphones, on Saturday at Walla Walla High School 100 high school students held a battle of the brains.

"We have our veterans that compete at a higher level and open our senior division, and then we have our novices. And some of our novices are very, very strong," forensics team leader Jean Tobin said.

Regional high schools Ephrata, Wenatchee, Yakima, Pasco and Ione, Ore., competed at Wa-Hi's annual forensics tournament.

Like the Super Bowl, which has nothing to do with an actual super-sized bowl, forensics competitions have nothing to do with crime scene investigations; the origin of the name is still a mystery to Tobin.

"I have no idea. I don't know and I have done this for 20 years," she said with a laugh.

The term originated in Greece around 450 B.C., and was used in relation to the study of public speaking before a court. It roughly translates to the seeking of truth, according to online sources.

A fourth-grade teacher at Green Park Elementary with strong foundation in forensics that includes a four-year full-ride debate scholarship from Whitman College, Tobin was a super forensics competitor.

So when her daughter became a freshman, she felt the need to start a team in Walla Walla.

That first year saw a roster of 10 students who were willing to work out, build up and eventually test their mental abilities against other high school teams.

Among them was Hope Grant-Herriot.

"I went to the meeting and instantly I knew where I am. It just clicked," Grant-Herriot said.

The veteran team member now specializes in congressional debate, where members follow the rules of Congress to debates bills and policy.

"One of the toughest parts about congressional is that a lot of people underestimate it, because you have to fight for your own chance to speak," Grant-Herriot said.

This year, the Wa-Hi forensics team boasts 26 members and no bench warmers; every member gets a chance to compete at tournaments.

On Saturday morning, the team had finished the first round and was regrouping in the commons. They talked, joked and looked very much like other teams, except that they were wearing semi-formal outfits instead of jerseys.

But veteran team member Kendall Dunovant has donned both.

"It is my best thing to do. I played sports. I played golf. And I love debate so much more. I just think it is a really great way to expand yourself," Dunovant, said.

And she would know, being one of the stronger team members, a position she earned through years of practice and study, and by competing in a regular season that lasts from November to March.

Well before the season and beyond, Dunovant and her teammates will study up on 30 different current-event topics, spending several hours each week reading and debating.

Dunovant said her strongest area is extemporaneous speech, where students don't find out their topic until 30 minutes before the competition.

On Saturday morning it was about the European financial crisis.

"I just had to talk about that Germany is trying to solve the problem, but they aren't not getting involved enough," Dunovant said, sounding like young economical pundit.

Forensics competitors also have their Super Bowl, which will also take place in Indianapolis in June.

Unlike today's Super Bowl, where the members of each team's 53-man roster will receive either $88,000 or $44,000, depending on whether they win or lose, only two forensics team members can advance to the nationals, all the forensics tournaments are free to the public and school districts usually only partially fund their teams.

"We write letters to friends to ask for money, car washes, yard sales. It is a long season," Tobin said.

The forensics team usually enters 10 tournaments a year and has one debate camp each summer. Next week, nine team members will go to Palo Alto, Calif., to take part in a West Coast tournament at Stanford University.

"I love it. It's awesome. It's the best thing ever," said Anna Apostolidis, 14. "Sometimes in a round when someone doesn't connect with you or doesn't understand what you are saying, it isn't so cool. But when you have an audience that does get what you are saying, it is cool."

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