Annabeth Lundberg always had an interest in debate. Whether it was arguing with her parents, or being encouraged by them to debate, Annabeth could hold her own.
“I’m pretty argumentative, and I like to think I’m good at it,” she said. “Last year, my school gave out awards and mine was for being the best debater even though that was before I started actually competing. I have it hanging on my wall with my trophies from the debate.”
Annabeth’s trophies now include a first-place honor in the University of Georgia’s “High School Bulldog Debates” tournament, a major national tournament that drew 80 of the best debate teams from across the country.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment considering it was last summer that, out of a need to find something to do with her time, Annabeth was signed up for a virtual debate camp at Harvard University.
It should be noted that Annabeth is no stranger to the world of debating. Her parents are well-connected in the debate world, and Annabeth’s father, Chris Lundberg, has coached debating at Northwestern and Harvard universities, and even invented debate strategies. Annabeth knew debate would somehow play a part in her future, but it wasn’t until she attended Harvard’s virtual camp that she got the bug.
“It just kind of clicked,” she said. “On my first day, I thought, ‘this is amazing.’ I made a lot of connections with the kids that I met at Harvard. I still keep up with them. I met my debate partner, Meghan Derby, at Harvard.”
Annabeth and Meghan became a team and decided they wanted to compete on a national level. Bill Smelko, a family friend and attorney who lived in San Diego — and who also lectured at the Harvard Debate Camp — offered to coach the team.
“He has a passion for teaching kids how to debate, and is one of the most gifted teachers I have ever met,” Chris Lundberg said of Smelko.
The three of them started meeting virtually three times a week to learn to debate, to prepare arguments, and to see if they could compete. They were at a substantial disadvantage: a coach in San Diego who was busy running a law practice, teammates on separate coasts, and no team for support. Given the complex bureaucracy that regulates extra-curricular high school activities, they had to twist the arms of a number of tournaments even to compete.
Debate competitions are largely dominated by very well-resourced private schools and elite public schools. Most of these schools have six-figure travel budgets, dedicated debate classes, large coaching staffs, and a huge roster of talented kids to send to tournaments.
Orange County high schools have nothing resembling that. “It’s a real shame that kids from most public schools here in North Carolina don’t have the chance to do it,” said Chris Lundberg. “It is a great pathway to success — and people who cut their academic teeth on debate have done some incredible things.” People of influence, such as John F. Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Karl Rove, Brad Pitt, Samuel Jackson, and Nate Silver.
After many hours of preparations, Annabeth, her teammate and coach were set for the High School Bulldog Debate tournament. “We were a little nervous for this tournament,” Annabeth said. “Most of the teams going we’re really big schools that have a lot of resources and a lot of different sets of partners. There were, like, three all-boys schools attending, and we really like beating them. We went to the preliminary rounds where you just compete and switch between being on the affirmative and the negative for six rounds. If you have enough wins, you go into the elimination rounds. We got in and we beat the team that got third place in preliminaries. Then we beat the team that got second place in the semi-finals. In the finals we beat the first seed.”
Annabeth and Meghan won the final round by arguing the 13th Amendment should prohibit involuntary prison labor: and they claimed that involuntary prison labor violates fundamental constitutional rights; that it has a disparate impact on communities of color; and that it played a role in the spread of the coronavirus.
The kind of debate Annabeth takes part in is policy debate, which has a lot of structure. Also, speed is key. Debaters talk really fast. “Because our speech times are limited to eight and five minutes — so I sometimes speak 30 pages in eight minutes,” she said. “But my dad can talk a lot faster than me. So when I’ve watched his debates, I sometimes don’t even know what he’s saying.”
This is far different from the political debates with which many people are more familiar.
“Presidential debates, for example, may spend a lot of time kind of dancing around the question and interrupting each other,” she said. “That kind of thing would not fly in policy. I think a lot of people, when they hear that I do debating, automatically assume that it’s centered around politics, but I think it’s a lot bigger than that, and it goes far beyond any biases, or political affiliations.”
Annabeth, who is a freshman at Cedar Ridge High School, is hoping to help bring some of her experiences as a debater to Orange County Schools. While Cedar Ridge has a debate club, it isn’t geared for competition. Annabeth wants to help change that. She is even willing to help coach students who are interested.
Her dad has also offered to help with coaching. “We believe that if we can find other kids interested locally, we can offer them free, high-quality debate instruction to level the playing field for Orange County’s kids,” he said. “We need the support of teachers, schools, and we need a crop of kids who are willing to learn.”
Cedar Ridge Principal Carlos Ramirez is open to the idea and wants to be able to offer support.
Speaking of support, Annabeth said she’s received plenty of encouragement from her debate friends for her tournament win. “Even if they didn’t go to the tournament they texted me and congratulated me because it’s kind of a big deal when you win your first national tournament,” she said.