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The Poison Ivy League Part 11-What Might Have Been

May 3, 2011

Middlebury College is a small school deep in Vermont. It was the end of autumn when Kimel ventured there, and the ride was scenic with multicolored trees of all kinds. Sulla B and he were debating together; Scipio was with Fabius, and Agrippina with Claudia. It’s likely that Sulla A was there too, though it is not clear who his partner was. There was also a whole contingent of freshmen. Horatius, an accomplished high school speaker from Cyprus, was partnered with Sulla C, who had a scraggly beard in those days. The team used to call him “the Amish” behind his back. In reality, he would have been rejected from that pious community for his addiction to bling; he always wore his high school ring, which had the misfortune of being gargantuan.

Sulla B and Kimel performed well enough the first two rounds. Kimel was much better than his partner; although his intelligence shone through in rounds, he had yet to successfully transfer his bite and withering sarcasm into a distinct in-round persona, and he sometimes stumbled over his words. However, Kimel and he proved to be a powerful alliance. In the third round, they hit the future winners of the tournament: Cassius from MIT and his partner from BU. They ran the case against Harvard, Opp choice, whether religions should include “irrational” laws such as taboos on certain kinds of food. It was a mistake to run a case involving religion against Kimel. He destroyed them. He even tied existentialism into the round by talking about how the sincere performance of a physical act in itself (such as taking communion, etc.) can bind a person more closely to their religion because it emphasizes a mindset of total faith rather than reason. Since he elaborated well on this idea in the days before he ever read Kierkegaard, he thought that he deserved the 27 he received.

The next morning, Sulla and Kimel hit Terentius, a Yale novice, and Tiberius. They decided to run Kimel’s case about the Catholic Church renouncing excommunication. To Harvard’s delight, they won that round on the strength of Kimel’s PMR. The feeling of beating Tiberius, one of the sharpest minds on the trifecta of teams that year, was immensely self-satisfying, particularly since Kimel had never really forgiven him for their terrible first round at the Fairfield tournament the year before. Tiberius’s strength as a debater was tied very closely to his deviousness. He would pull every trick in the book to defeat his opponents and wouldn’t mind wading through a shrill and angry round to do so. This aspect of his personality, when tied to Livia’s haughty intelligence and habit of producing tides of points, was extremely intimidating to everyone but the boys from MIT, who learned to make fun of them and win over rowdy audiences in outrounds.

In the fifth round, Sulla and Kimel hit the year’s best team from Princeton and also came out winners, breaking as one of the top seeds at the tournament to quarter-finals. Now they were hitting Rufinus from Brandeis, slick and sneaky. Harvard ran the case Opp choice whether the emperor Constantine should have banned graven images from religious worship. Despite being born and raised in Russia, Sulla B did not perform memorably (wouldn’t you think he would have some insights into the practice of using icons?) and the round was lost, which was disappointing after such a devastating in-round performance. Whatever the case, they did better than any other team from Harvard. Agrippina and Claudia also dropped in quarter-finals to Cassius, running the case that jury pools should be selected from Motor Vehicle Department listings rather than voters’ lists. Kimel won second speaker, after Tiberius.

There are certain memories that one simply narrates, since the image in itself has long been erased and only the narrative is left in the mind. Then, there are memories that can transport you through time. The car ride back from the Middlebury tournament was one of those second kind of memories, almost sickeningly nostalgic and bittersweet. For long afterwards, Kimel remembered “Tiny Dancer” playing on the radio, and Fabius gushing over how the same song had played on the car ride home the first time he’d ever qualified for Nationals at Middlebury the year before. An almost identical scene features in the movie “Almost Famous.” Even mentioning that something is a cliché is a cliché.

Sulla B and Kimel became close friends after Middlebury. Born and raised in communist Russia, he told a story about why he chose to be a libertarian and a Republican. It involved pineapples or some other exotic fruit being shipped to a town that was in need of some other necessity thanks to the blindness of collective planning. He was fiercely patriotic. In fact, he even spoke enthusiastically about the Iraq War at the time, though Kimel’s predictions on that front proved more accurate than his. Sulla was also so witty that Kimel sometimes had fun imagining him in high heels and the white face paint of eighteenth century France—his rotund figure would have cast a ridiculous shadow.

Sulla B and Kimel would eventually drift apart; he eventually became Sulla A’s consistent partner, and their late night get-togethers and conversations as Pinocchio’s restaurant in Cambridge became things of the past. But Kimel valued the memory of those nights, and the practice rounds they arranged with every novice member of the team to introduce themselves to them. The rounds were Sulla B’s idea and were, simply put, a lot of fun. Kimel flattered himself that the more people he knew and was friendly towards, the more likely he would be elected President over Sulla A. Sulla C and Scott did particularly well in a round about whether Jerry Seinfeld should dump one of his neurotic girlfriends in one of the episodes of his show.

A person who did not do well in her first practice round with Kimel was Arianna, a sophomore who joined the team along with her friend Petronius and was hence technically a novice, but sandwiched in an awkward place between the sophomore class and the freshmen. Kimel’s first impression of her was that she was completely ordinary in rounds. Needless to say, she would more than improve, but the difficulty of being considered a newcomer would prove shockingly difficult for her to overcome and does not speak to the credit of the future dynamic of the Harvard team.

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