Amidst all the new experiences a hybrid model has brought to Ridge, the nationally-recognized speech and debate team, Ridge Forensics, continues to thrive. What’s been true for so many years continues to happen despite a global pandemic – dedicated coaches and students work together to bring messages to larger audiences through the art of public speaking. But one thing has changed; instead of little “families” of forensics students enthusiastically practicing in 400-wing rooms, practices and tournaments have shifted to online platforms.
Likewise, each individual speech or debate event has different priorities in a virtual setting. In the world of Speech and Interpretation, that means finding the right room lighting for your final round speech in a national tournament, or coordinating the emotions and movements of your duo piece with your partner on a different Zoom screen. For debaters, that means constantly making eye contact with your webcam while arguing your case, or asking more concise questions in a fiery cross-examination.
Regarding the new changes to speech and debate competition this year, some students express nostalgia for the lost ‘traveling’ aspect of forensics. For context, during a typical school year, the team travels across the country, competing at several prestigious university campuses. But even while the competitions are held online, the team continues to bond. When recalling a travel tournament in Florida from the 2019-20 season, where iguanas were caught climbing up trees, the discussion quickly turned into a fun game of finding iguana fun facts and iguana GIFs. Additionally, the team is very active on social media during tournament weekends, especially with the RF Instagram stories.
Despite the season’s drastic changes, coaches and team members recognize and appreciate the silver lining at every practice, every team meeting, and yes, every Saturday 8am check-in. Congressional Debate captain Bharat Sanka ‘21 notes, “Online debating is great! I can go from my bed to debating in less than an hour!” Another team member, Chloe Yang ‘23, remarks, “At first, I wasn’t sure how forensics was going to work on an online setting because a big part of it was having in person tournaments. But as the year went on, we started adjusting to the online climate. All in all, forensics has adapted and adjusted to the new online situation well and we have almost finished an entire [season] of forensics online!” Like Sanka and Yang, seeing through the irregularities of these unprecedented times has become a major theme of RF’s history this season – and the team only continues to progress with success.
David Yastremski, director of the Ridge Forensics team, reflects on the 2020-21 season thus far, “it has really forced us to reassess how we compete at the state and national tournaments. Many states are looser with their restrictions, so students outside New Jersey can be together, competing in classrooms at their schools. Or many are still having after-school practice sessions. In New Jersey, we have been virtually restricted from any in-person activities. We are hoping that changes soon where our team can come to Ridge and compete in the virtual world together, keeping socially distant throughout the process. Many of the upcoming national competitions are two or three days long. Being together can make that experience feel a little bit more like the good ‘ol days when we would be together practicing at our hotels, working on cases in flight, and meeting between rounds to grab a quick bite. But, I’ll be honest, it’s really difficult — but this team has set the standard for their tenacity, their focus, and their willingness to stay-the-course until we can get back to a new sense of normalcy.”
Another large part of the first half of the season was novice development. Novices, as the team refers to them, are first-year speech and debate students. This year, 24 novices joined Ridge Forensics and have had immense progress in the virtual tournament environment. Moreover, the amount of asynchronous tournaments, or in other words, tournaments that aren’t judged in “live” rounds but rather via pre-recorded performances, has risen. In particular, RF novices have championed several events in asynchronous tournaments, including at the recent Munster Invitational where Mariam Khan ‘24 won in Extemporaneous Speaking, Abigail Lee ‘24 won in Declamation, and Anjali Dadlani ‘24 won in Poetry Interpretation. Among other novices to earn top places in their respective events were Amy Cao ‘24, Alyssa Kim ‘24, Angelina Yang ‘24, Simone Bajaj ‘24, and Hanna Khadr ‘24.
While the team continues to make history, impacts of the pandemic on speech and debate are evident on a national level. While several out-of-classroom activities have seen a decline in participation, the speech and debate community continues to foster growth and optimism. Across the country, increased accessibility to prestigious tournaments is becoming a reality. More than ever, students from smaller schools are able to compete at tournaments that they would otherwise never have the opportunity to attend. What’s more? RF is a part of helping the greater-good come to fruition. Already, the team has hosted the Ridge Debates tournament in which over 63 teams, representing eleven states, participated. Events offered included Lincoln-Douglas, Policy, Public Forum, and Parliamentary debate styles. Better yet, during the last week of January, Ridge Forensics will host another national tournament, the Ridge Invitational. In past years, the Ridge Invitational has been a fun, well-known event for RF coaches, team members, and participants alike. This year, new events like ‘Children’s Literature’ – which will be judged by children, many of them the children of Ridge faculty – make the 2021 Ridge Invitational even more special.
Mr. Yastremski further explains, “As the pandemic continues, we are constantly changing it up, offering new ways to engage our students, not only at Ridge, but across the state. Some schools have not been able to compete all year; fortunately, we have been able to continue and our students have truly been the beneficiaries of the experience. It may not look like the old debate tournaments we are used to seeing in movies, but these students are truly embracing the opportunities to exercise their minds, embolden their voices, and express their truths in these new, innovative environments.”
Day by day, the 11 coaches and 75 students of Ridge Forensics continue to give life to their motto, “speak truth, change lives.”