The Bronx Science Speech & Debate Team, one of the winningest teams in the U.S. and currently ranked No. 1 in the country, operates on a policy of no tryouts and no cuts: Just come to a meeting. Getting a leadership position, however, is harder. “It’s a full-on application process with an interview, résumé, merit check, grades check,” says senior Ellington Fagan. “It was like submitting my tax returns, if I even do those.”
Ellington is one of 12 team captains of the sprawling squad, which has about 300 members this season, roughly 10 percent of the school’s student body. His specialty is Congressional Debate, in which students mimic a legislative body. According to him, that category tends to attract jacks-of-all-trades who have other interests too (he happens to be on the basketball and baseball teams). There are also more research-focused categories like Policy and Public Forum; in Public Forum, competitors must prepare to argue for or against a position on a topic without knowing in advance which side they’ll be assigned. Debaters who compete in Speech focus on interpreting works convincingly, whether they’re dramatic or filled with jokes.
To some of the captains, the secret behind the team’s dominance is the way it trains its debaters to be rigorous and creative while also honoring their idiosyncrasies. “Each person has their own style, whether it’s aggressive, emotional, or logical,” Ellington says. “As captain, I try to help varsity members find their own voice.” During meetings and practices, members do public-speaking exercises: Have one person start talking on a topic and then call on another every 30 seconds and make them carry on as if there was no break, or read a speech and say “watermelon” between every word. “Those drills helped me gain confidence,” Alex Eum, a team captain in Policy, says. “It helped me create a persona that eventually became who I am.”