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The Poison Ivy League Part 2-Harvard Hosts a Tournament, Kimel Loses a Bed

May 3, 2011

The fact that Agrippina invited Kimel to partner with her at the Wellesley tournament was somewhat scandalous at the time, because although he’d fulfilled the membership requirements for the Fall term when he judged at the Harvard tournament and housed debaters in his room, he’d not done so for the Spring, when everyone was supposed to help judge at the high school competition. Still, in those days, Harvard novices could only begin to debate after the MIT tournament (around December) as a cost-saving mechanism, since the team was so poor. The upshot of this was that few debaters had had a chance to show their potential yet besides Kimel, so Agrippina had good cause to decide to extend her invitation. If she hadn’t, he most likely would have left the activity completely, since his only experience of it was the debacle of the Harvard tournament he’d attended in the Fall as a judge.

As a novice at the competition, Kimel had been given terrible rounds to judge. The exception to this general rule was the first round, at which a competitor from a border-state school delivered a fantastic speech in a hypothetical case about whether a submarine commander should launch nuclear torpedoes in a case of ambiguous authority on board the ship. Kimel gave him a 27 out of 30 (in effect, the highest score one can get, though a handful of 28s per year might also be given out). One of the heads of the tabulation room asked Kimel who the speaker was, laughed upon hearing the name, and lowered the score to a 26. After that Kimel was relegated to judging boring down-rounds featuring teams with severely losing records.

The conversation in the Judges’ Assembly Room seemed insufferable. People kept dwelling on words Kimel had never heard before, like “the exclusionary rule” and “libertarianism.” Freshmen bobbed their heads as if they knew what their elders were blathering about. There was no discourse on a human or individual level. In the General Assembly, there was alcohol everywhere—tides of it, as if the room took Homer’s epithet “wine faced sea” literally and replaced “wine” with “cheap liquor.” Certain competitors would even steal sips from flasks before, during, and after their rounds. Women were outnumbered by men by a margin of at least four to one. Racial and ethnic minorities (besides East Asians, who were well-represented) were so few that they amounted to more than five participants overall in a room of scores of people. Whites, particularly Jews and Northern Europeans, comprised the majority. These latter details actually amounted to little in terms of Kimel’s opinions, but might be valuable for readers unfamiliar with the general composition of the circuit.

Kimel was given the dubious honor of housing one of the largest teams in his room because his freshman dorm was on the spacious side. One of the older members of this team confided in him that the social circle at his school was among the worst on the East Coast, since it was divided into rigid cliques largely defined by wealth and wardrobe. He went on to reveal that he only hung around with most of his friends to buy drugs from them. When Kimel woke up in the morning to take a shower, he found this memorable competitor lying in his bed beneath the covers.

Largely apathetic about debate and seeing it as more of a bizarre spectacle than an activity that could engage him, Kimel took the time to see only one out-round at the Harvard tournament. The very debater who’d slipped into his bed in the morning rose to speak. Kimel had never heard a more cogent, wry, or powerfully inventive debate speech—here, he thought to myself, was creativity at its sharpest, honed like a sword for battle. All of his negative opinions about the circuit and its members seemed to melt away. He would never be able to think so quickly on his feet, he thought to himself.

The Harvard tournament had long since passed by the time Agrippina and Kimel went to Wellesley. It was, however, in the back of his mind as he waited for the rest of the team at Johnston Gate by Harvard Yard. The team usually got to tournaments by renting damaged cars from a place called Rent a Wreck, which loaned out sputtering jalopies to young drivers. But since the trip to Wellesley wasn’t so long, everyone was traveling by bus and commuter rail. One of the first people to arrive was Sulla A., whom freshmen on the team mentioned looked something like Kimel. He was supposedly the most serious about the activity and the most ambitious, and had had some success on the high school circuit besides. He was debating with the second-ranked person on the team—the Vice President and Comp Director Claudia, whose job it was to recruit new students. This Claudia was a brilliant thinker, but her accent was so thick that she drew the mockery of the people whom she usually defeated. When Kimel met Sulla A., he joked that they should debate together some day as Romulus and Remus.

Agrippina arrived late. Kimel complimented her on her dress, and she thanked him for this courtesy. In retrospect, he would come to value everything that was about to ensue as a treasured memory, though experience would one day prove that he was wrong about many of the assumptions that he made that day, a fact which later turned out to be so disorienting and disillusioning that it robbed his first experience of success at debate of much of the value and excitement which he’d felt, naively, at the time. But all of this would only be revealed one year later, when important secrets about that day were finally revealed to him.

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