Riding in the dark: a high school memory by
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(31 Stories)

Prompted By Hello Darkness

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It was always a dark Saturday morning when the high school debate team boarded the school bus and headed off to a tournament. Our destinations included towns such as New Castle, Lafayette, Noblesville, and Logansport. Our coach, Mr. Forrest Fruits, was a native Hoosier with a small-town background. When I replay in my mind the names of those Indiana towns where the action took place, I hear them in his voice and his accent, redolent of the solemnity he brought to the naming of those important verbal battlefields. There was a long a, for example, in the first syllable of Lafayette. My numerous years of French study have never rendered the pronunciation of that town otherwise.

Dan seemed to implicitly understand the concept of ethos, which I learned about two to three decades later. It comes from Aristotle, and it means establishing credibility, giving the audience a reason why they should listen to what you have to say.

Those towns were contested terrain and we debaters were the teams of athletes, or even gladiators, streaming in along state and county roads from all directions. As in athletics, some squads were celebrated and feared for their record of past achievements. One of the high schools in Lafayette, called Jefferson High (“Jeff o’ Lafayette” as our coach called it), was the cauldron that everyone knew produced the fiercest debaters in the state. While others would unpackage their papers and notecards and index cards in rubber bands from a book bag, the varsity boys from that school would swagger into the classrooms where debates were convened clad in sports coats and neckties and bearing actual briefcases. They would set their cases down on a table and pull up two chairs. That nice clicking sound of the boys opening their briefcases made many opponents feel like they had already lost. It was even scarier if you looked more closely and saw that the cases were chock full of neatly typed cards, organized with subject tabs for quick reference in making their own arguments and rebutting yours.

Thinking back, there was so much I didn’t know about Dan Goodman, the gladiatorial partner assigned to me during my junior and senior year. We went to tournaments together eight or ten times each year during the fall to winter season, spending the better part of a Saturday not only physically proximate to one another but also locked into a close emotional space—stressing through the debates themselves (three was the usual number, with breaks in between) and then nervously sauntering up and down past the designated bulletin board where the results of each round of debating would be posted. We must have had lunch, but I have no recollection of that; I just remember a lot of nervous chatting about what we did well and what we should do differently in the upcoming round. And—oh, God!—did we get matched up in the next round with a team from Lafayette Jeff?

Dan came to my house a number of times, but I never went to his. It never struck me as odd, as he was the one with the car, and also a job that was just a five-minute ride from my house. It was convenient for him to drop by after his work was finished—or perhaps at times before his shift began. His acquaintance with my house and my parents contrasted to my nearly complete ignorance about his home and family life. It was just one of the ways I was in the dark about Dan.

I was a reasonably good debater, but I believe my success in academics blinded me to my own weaknesses and to his strengths in this arena.  I assumed that preparing for a debate was similar to writing a good paper in a science class: Study numerous sources, take good notes, identify some compelling facts and perhaps some statistical data, choose a few quotations from individuals who are recognized experts in the field, and put it together in logical sequence. Dan was far from a great student, and probably never wrote a good science paper. But he was a phenomenal debater.

Dan understood that debate was only partly about the content but more importantly about connecting with your audience—which in this case was just one person, the judge (nearly always a male high school teacher in those days). The judge would solely determine which team won and which team lost, and Dan seemed to implicitly understand the concept of ethos, which I learned about two to three decades later. It comes from Aristotle, and it means establishing credibility, giving the audience a reason why they should listen to what you have to say.

On the bulletin board, we would find out who won and who lost after each round. At the end of the tournament, we would receive detailed scores from the judges for each of our three rounds. They filled out forms in which they rated each of us and doled out points on such qualities as knowledge of the issues, use of questioning (“cross exam” was an important part of the debate), clarity of expression, relevance of rebuttal arguments, and overall presentation.

I went through almost every debate wishing Dan was better prepared, more on top of the research we had worked on together, and more rapid-fire in his attacks on our opponents’ lines of reasoning.  In short, more like me. Why couldn’t he come up to the podium with a pile of 4” x 6” cards, as I did, and zap the opponents with one devastating quote or statistic after another? I made myself almost ill at times, worrying that he was wasting time as he focused only on one out of their six main points, dwelled on it, turned it over, looked up at the judge and back to the opponents, almost as if he was still thinking about their arguments and didn’t know exactly what he was going to say!  When I stepped up there, I knew what I was going to say, and I just knew I had the right quote or the right statistic to demolish their argument. And I wasn’t going to waste three minutes of rebuttal on one of their arguments, if I could take 30 seconds on each one and fire back at them on all six points.

This is not from a debate tournament and does not include Dan or me, but is from a 1966 Student Congress, which drew many of the same participants and gives the “look” of the times. My brother Leon is front right, and two of the six winners–no surprise–are from Lafayette Jeff.

When we got the scores back, I found out nearly every single time that Dan had earned more points in nearly every category.  And I kept thinking, “wow, what debate was that judge listening to?” All those quotes and facts I crammed in? I didn’t get it—until I was in my forties and doing a lot of public speaking and had a chance to study with someone accomplished in that area and learned about ethos (and also about logos and pathos.)

The job Dan had near my house was in the camera department of Jubilee City, a large, rambling, multi-faceted “discount store” that smelled like a combination of perfume, caramel corn, and new sneakers and sold, more-or-less, everything except groceries. These kinds of stores flourished in the 1960s and maybe for one decade more, before Target and Walmart and others swallowed or displaced them and took their foundational concept to another whole level.

Dan was communicating with customers of all ages and demographics 20 hours a week or more. Selling film was one thing, but when someone wanted a camera—this was before anyone had heard of a camera embedded in your phone, or even imagined that one could carry around a portable phone—that was real money. Dan had to learn to walk the customers through the array of cameras, lenses, lights, bags and cases, and other accessories. He learned to make eye contact. He had to figure out what was important to the customer, and even guess how much money they might be willing to spend. He had to establish credibility, over and over again, and get customers to trust his knowledge as well as his good intentions in offering the guidance he was purveying.

Those skills were much more applicable in debating than the skills I absorbed writing research papers.

When he walked up to the podium and started his rebuttal speech, it wasn’t just that he brought no stack of quotes and statistics. He made a virtue out of it. He would say, looking the judge in the eyes, “you know, I could come up here with a stack of cards with quotes on them.”  (Pause.). “I’m sure you have judged other debates, where it’s ‘tit for tat,’ Every time this team over here says ‘tit,’”; looking at the opponents and then back at the judge, “the other team over there comes back and says ‘tat.’  And both sides have quotes from experts to back up what they’re saying.”  (Long pause.)

Pressing his lips together, smiling (I never smiled during a debate!), cocking his head to the left and then the right, getting a bit of a scowl on his face. “Sir, the negative side has tried to overwhelm you with their research and their erudition.”  (I didn’t even know the word erudition. Not sure how many judges did either.) “Their sophistication.”  (Oh, my God, Dan, you’ve only got one minute left in rebuttal and you haven’t rebutted one single argument yet!). “Well, the affirmative side is not going to try to impress you with how many quotes we can read out loud. We are going to ask you to look logically at what this whole argument is about.

“You understand that many of the weapons our government sells end up in the wrong hands.”  Gestures with his hands. “They undermine our own foreign policy.” Nodding his head and looking at the judge, not at any notes. “These weapons sometimes even kill our soldiers.” Shakes his head, looks almost mournful. He glares at the opponents, reiterates, “selling weapons that are used to kill our own soldiers,” then back to the judge with a more neutral face. ”You’ve heard that India and Pakistan used U.S. weapons against each other? You’ve heard my partner lay out many examples of peaceful assistance programs—in contrast–that have gained the USA friends in parts of the world where we were previously hated!

“Just put aside all the statistics, all the quotes. I think you can agree that—aside from some defense companies that might lose a chance to make a few million bucks off some jet aircraft or some tanks or other weapons, we will all be better off when we limit our programs to nonmilitary assistance.” A fleeting smile, straight to the judge.

I never understood how convincing that approach was, but I was a kid. The judges were adults, and Dan interacted with adult customers at his camera counter every day. The judges clearly admired Dan’s approach and found him utterly convincing.

We had a solid winning record. With a stronger partner—although I certainly never saw it that way in high school—I think he could have made it all the way to the State finals, if not the Nationals. We never were quite that good. But we had fun and did once beat the boys from Jeff o’ Lafayette. I don’t recall if Dan used the “erudition’ line on them, but whatever he said, I am confident that it was one of the only times they were made to feel sheepish about their briefcases full of notes and quotes.

I visited Dan and his wife during his senior year of college at Indiana University and spent a night at their apartment. (It would have been my senior year too, except that I had been suspended due to my involvement in disruptive student protests during the invasion of Cambodia the previous spring.) It was a pleasant visit but there were no deep conversations. That turned out to be our final encounter.

When I learned more about public speaking, many years later, and was able to look back and scrutinize his approach to debate and mine, and finally understand why all those judges found Dan to be so effective, I looked forward to one day sharing my insights with him.  And then years passed, and the AIDS pandemic ran its course and Dan Goodman became one of the fallen. At some point, he had discovered he was bisexual or gay and in his later years, had a male romantic partner. Both of them practiced law—and I pity the attorneys who had to face Dan across the courtroom.

I say Dan “discovered he was bisexual or gay.” But I am in the dark as to whether this is an accurate supposition.  Could he have known about his sexual longings even when he was dating girls in high school? Or when he married a woman while he was in college?  The answers to those questions are not important. I do hope he was able to enjoy the memory of those early Saturdays, speeding along those Hoosier highways in the dark, preparing for combat with his loyal (if sometimes silently seething) partner. I do wish he could have known how much I came to venerate the debater he was in high school, and how much I still revere his memory.

Profile photo of Dale Borman Fink Dale Borman Fink
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Dale, and good use of the Darkness concept to segue into writing about your debate experiences. I enjoyed your analysis of your style and your partner’s style, and why the judges ranked him higher.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Such an interesting story of approach and style, Dale. I love your description of Jubilee City, “It smelled like a combination of perfume, caramel corn and new sneakers”. That’s rich. But your lack of understanding, and perhaps a bit of contempt for Dan Goodman is interesting and a bit telling. His style is that of a mature salesperson, who, as you point out, has to deal with customers all day long, not just other high school debate-types. You make that very clear and it is an interesting juxtaposition. His later life adds more details to this complicated human being. Thank you for sharing the details of story.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the specific description you quoted and I appreciate all your other comments too. However, “contempt” is not the attitude I intended to convey toward Dan. Frustration, annoyance, irritation, bewilderment, yes–all due to not really “getting” at that age the totality of ingredients that make someone a good debater. But I never meant to imply disrespect, let alone contempt.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a lovely tribute to your friend Dan, as well as a vivid picture of those dark Indiana highways. Having a daughter who lives in Avon and attended Purdue for Vet School, I’m familiar with the Hoosier vibe.

  4. Marian says:

    I love the way you used sound and smell in this story, Dale. I could hear all the dialog and appreciate your learning about public speaking, connecting with the audience, and the importance (or not) of statistics. It’s too bad about what ultimately happened to Dan and other men of that generation who had the misfortune of coming out in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

  5. As always Dale, you tell a fascinating, informative tale with an amazing recall of details, in this case a mini-treatise on the art of the debate.

    But the best part of your stories is that the humanity always takes center stage as you describe your relationships with family and friends.

  6. I especially like your metaphorical use of being in the dark in relation to this prompt.

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