Debate club: ‘Fight Club’ for thinkers


Debate club tends to attract kids who really like arguing. And for the kids who really, really like arguing, there’s Philadelphia’s summer debate academy — run by the nonprofit After School Activities Partnership.

Friday was the final day of this weeklong camp, and we ventured up to Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia to take in the action. We figured we’d see some spirited argumentation featuring some talented Philly orators.

Instead, in Room 212, we stumbled on a classic tale — that of collaborators turned rivals.

Not unlike Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Dejah Hall and Jahmeer Stratton used to be a legendary tag team. Or at least that’s how they describe it.

“We were like a perfect match,” said Jahmeer, a rising eighth-grader at the Laboratory Charter School in West Philadelphia.

“He could tell what I was thinking without me even telling him,” said Dejah, who is leaving Laboratory Charter this year for her freshman year at the Philadelphia High School for Girls.

But now, at the summer debate academy, they were squaring off for the first time.

And since we’re talking about debate kids, the highly anticipated match was naturally preceded by some smack talk.

“Second place is the first loser,” Dejah declared. “I can’t be the first loser.”

“But you’re gonna have to, I’m sorry,” Jahmeer informed his former partner.

“Jahmeer, don’t forget where you came from,” Dejah snapped back.

“I know where I came from,” Jahmeer replied.

OK, so maybe there was a hint of sarcasm in the pre-debate jousting. But once the competition began, the levity vanished.

The topic was whether social media has had a positive impact on the United States. Jahmeer — along with partner Joseph Oronto-Pratt — took the pro side, arguing Facebook and the like have left America better than they found it.

Dejah and her co-pilot, Kiana White, argued the opposite.

Over the next half hour, the words whirred like bees in a hive.

Jahmeer and Joseph fired off statistics about job growth and crowdsourced fundraising through social media. Dejah and Kiana countered with sobering data on cyberbullying and teen suicide.

The drama heightened during crossfire segments where Jahmeer and Dejah interrogated each other. Both seemed to relish the encounter, so much that it was difficult sometimes to make out the arguments.

But the passion was well articulated.

Agreeing to disagree

A classmate at Laboratory Charter suggested Dejah try debate when she first started at the school. She shrugged and figured she’d give it a shot.

“Ever since my first debate, I just fell in love with it,” said Dejah. “When I debate, it’s just the adrenaline. And I like when you debate back and forth. I can’t explain it. It’s just amazing.”

Dejah now wants to become a lawyer, and eventually a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Jahmeer started debating in sixth grade. When he originally said fifth grade, Dejah immediately corrected him.

If you hadn’t noticed, Dejah and Jahmeer are the combative type.

“I like to argue,” said Jahmeer. “I like making me feel like I’m right.”

When Friday’s debate ended, Jahmeer’s team came out on top. But the result seemed less consequential than the tableau of two young people so totally in their element.

They like to argue — Dejah and Jahmeer. And for one week this summer, they got to do exactly that.

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