Members of the LHS debate team with coach Sheryl Kaczmarek
Members of the LHS debate team with coach Sheryl Kaczmarek / Credit: Mai Yang

Given her chosen profession, it’s hard to believe that Sheryl Kaczmarek was not an argumentative child. But the leader of Lexington High School’s highly acclaimed debate program and National Speech and Debate Association hall-of-famer swears otherwise. “I was super shy. Never spoke to anybody, never had any friends. Totally, totally quiet,” she said recently.

Kaczmarek credits debate for pulling her out of her shell. “It kind of cured most of my shyness, which is honestly part of why I take what I do as a debate coach and teacher so very seriously,” Kaczmarek said. “If it hadn’t been for debate, I’d still be shy and still have no friends. Mostly because my debate experiences, none of those things are true.”

Kaczmarek began debating herself almost 50 years ago. Since then, she has spent much of her time recruiting, prepping, and sometimes prodding her students through various forms of debate – from Lincoln-Douglas (one-on-one) to Public Forum (two-person teams) and Policy (also two) — so that they, too, can gain confidence while learning to carefully consider the perspectives of others. Her success was most recently on display this past weekend when her team of 70 from LHS participated in the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League state championships.

“We did really well,” she quietly boasts. “We had a varsity competitor in the semi-finals and we had three of the four students in the novice Lincoln-Douglas division in the semi-finals. Both of the students in the final round were our students.”

The team’s performance in Public Forum, which Kaczmarek says is the most popular event in Massachusetts, was also impressive. “We had a team in the semi-finals of the varsity division, and we had two other varsity teams that got to the round of 16. We also had a novice team that got to the round of 16.” For the more advanced Policy category, LHS was the only competitor, leading them to win, in effect, by default. (A complete list of LHS category finalists appears at the end of this article.)

Kaczmarek is quick to point out that she is blessed to have stepped into a program that has enjoyed a long history of success. According to the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League’s website, Lexington has won the champion’s crown every year since at least 1995. She gives most of the credit for that track record to Ray Karras, who founded the program decades ago.

“Debate is enshrined in the curriculum as a social studies elective [thanks to Ray], and that makes a huge difference in terms of both student success and ability to work on things. It also recognizes the value of their time in ways that an afterschool program really can’t, because there’s credit.”

That was not the case in Newburgh, New York, where Kaczmarek taught for years and where debate was just another afterschool club, competing with other activities like sports. “It was rare when someone could give up or would be willing to give up football for debate,” she laughs good naturedly.

“Lexington is different,” she notes with pride. “We offer a depth of experiences and an educational set of opportunities that honestly don’t exist in most classes in high school, because we dig very deeply into the topics that we do. And these are topics that might be half a page in someone’s history or political science textbook or even science textbooks.”

The town is also blessed with the Lexington Debate Institute, the brainchild of an LHS alum who, according to Kaczmarek, was “looking for ways to connect to the community, partly to introduce debate to a younger group of people, and partly as a fundraiser, because debate is a very expensive interscholastic activity,” with tournament travel around the region a common occurrence. “New England has only a tiny handful of Policy debate programs, for example, which means that for our Policy debate students, we have to go to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania on buses, or we get on planes in order for them to find competition at all.”

The Institute’s parent group has been critical in its steadfast commitment to ensuring that no family will be charged for their student’s participation in debate. “No coach ever wants to make decisions about who goes to a tournament based on family’s ability to pay,” Kaczmarek says. The Institute solves that dilemma, “which makes us practically unique in the country.”

In the coming weeks, Kaczmarek will continue to shepherd her crew to a seemingly endless list of competitions, from the National Catholic Forensics League (NCFL – “you don’t have to be Catholic!”) to the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA – “if you don’t have enough acronyms, I can give you several more. Debate is filled with acronyms!”) As they practice and travel, she will continue to reinforce the most important skills they need to bring into each round: listening (“people always think that the best debaters are the ones that are completely talkative all the time. But an awful lot of debate is about listening and knowing what your opponents or partner have said so you can respond properly”); research and organization; note taking (“kids really struggle with this these days, but we remember things better when we write them”); and perceptual dominance (“we want judges to understand that we know what we’re talking about. Sounding confident even if you’re not, not shouting but speaking with power in your voice, and your position in the room so that if your opponent is taller than you, try to be slightly closer to your judge when you’re standing next to him during one of the cross-examination periods. These sorts of things make a difference.”)

When the competitions are over and the school year is done, Kaczmarek will work on helping to develop next year’s topics thanks to her role as chair of the National Speech and Debate Association’s Lincoln Douglas Topic committee. She will also be, like any one of her stellar debaters, planning for next year’s classes. She is confident that the program will continue to grow in popularity. “I’m kind of hoping at the moment that a handful of children who’ve currently signed up for next year’s classes [opt out],” she mentions sheepishly. “We’re a little oversubscribed.”

Particularly given the current political climate in the country, Kaczmarek wishes she had the bandwidth to do more. “In competition, participants have to learn how to take both sides of an argument,” she notes, challenging them to understand and appreciate both sides. It’s a way of thinking that could be valuable to everyone, regardless of their age.

Final Results of the Massachusetts Speech and Debate statewide competition, March 2023

Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate — Co-Champions — Sophie Shaw and Grace Chen

Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate — Semifinalist (Final 4) — Lillian Yang

Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate — Quarterfinalist (Elite 8) — Allison Liu

Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate — Octofinalist (Sweet 16) — Eric Zhang

Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate — Octofinalist (Sweet 16) — Advay Verma

Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate — Octofinalist (Sweet 16) — Jerry Xu

Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate — Octofinalist (Sweet 16) — Emma He

Varsity Lincoln Douglas Debate — Semifinalist (Final 4) —Samantha Fortier

Novice Policy Debate Champions— Sonal Setty and Ishaan Deepak

Varsity Policy Debate Champions — Misty Wang and Ishaan Tipirneni

Novice Public Forum Debate — Octofinalists (Sweet 16) — Deanna Ma and Aryan Sethi

Varsity Public Forum Debate — Semifinalists (Final 4) — Annie Fan and Tanay Dalmia

Varsity Public Forum Debate — Octofinalists (Sweet 16) — Ria Vasishtha and Everest Yang

Varsity Public Forum Debate — Octofinalists (Sweet 16) — Atreyi Basu and Anaya Joshi

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