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The Poison Ivy League Part 28-Northams with Fabius

May 3, 2011

Kimel didn’t originally plan to debate at the North American Championship, which was going to be held at Queen’s University in Ontario during the dead of winter. Meeting each other by chance soon before Christmas break, however, Fabius and Kimel began to gossip about the upcoming tournament. Fabius was already promised to another partner, but it was a person whom he could fathom letting down for a second opportunity to debate with Kimel. He reiterated how impressed he was by Kimel’s talent and said that he was sure they’d make a dangerous matchup. Since the North American Championship was one of the circuit’s two title tournaments, the other being Nationals, the temptation to agree was great for Kimel, though it would mean returning to school early from the holidays. At the same time, he had some misgivings about stealing someone else’s partner. These scruples were promptly overcome by the promise of success, however. After all, even advancing to quarter-finals after winning an octo-final round would be enough to qualify for Nationals; those were the rules of Northams. Soon, everything was arranged.

The ride to Canada took hours winding through thick pine forests. Eventually, amid increasingly blinding quantities of ice and snow, the van reached Queen’s University in the town of Kingston. Kimel was a nervous wreck after the journey. The driver had been guzzling alcohol all along the way, gulping straight from the bottle, and Kimel could scarcely conceal his terror as they slipped and slid alongside Lake Ontario. He began to relax, however, when he left the car and reunited with a group of old friends, a contingent of Canadians he’d housed in his room at that year’s Harvard tournament. They soon fell to reminiscing about the nights they’d spent camped out on the floor of his dorm room and the conversations that had kept them awake into the early hours of the morning.

Unlike at regular tournaments, the staff of Northams dicates what the topic of each round will be. For the first round, Kimel and Fabius were forced to defend that manned space programs should be banned. They were pitted against a team from a Canadian law school. In fact, they were considered two of that year’s best speakers from Canada. But Kimel was totally unaware of their reputation and, being oblivious, was at his most sharp and confident in the round. Although neither he nor Fabius could quite answer the argument that manned space flights were analogous to Columbus’ early voyages, victory was Harvard’s thanks to Kimel’s pragmatic point that technology should improve before manned missions were more widely implemented.

Fabius and Kimel went on to bring down one capable team after the next, including a future Top Speaker at Worlds. In large part, Kimel took a back seat to Fabius, a man with more than four years’ experience under his belt at the top of his game. But Kimel was by no means dead weight. Squaring off against largely unknown opponents was a great psychological boost for him, since he showed no fear or hesitation in his speeches. But he proved equally effective in a round against old friends: Sulla A and Arianna. Thanks greatly to Fabius, who made Kimel feel that he could do no wrong at the tournament, he won his first victory over his most consummate rival. After the round, Kimel was nevertheless impressed by how far Arianna had come as a speaker in a little over a year. APDA certainly rewards those willing to endure trials by fire.

Winning more than enough rounds to break, it was announced during Saturday night’s banquet that he and Fabius were to be hitting a team from William and Mary in the morning’s octo-finals. Kimel had never heard of the pair, but quickly learned that they were tremendously dominant in the South. He observed the two sophomores sitting across the room as the hosts of the tournament proposed a toast to the Queen.

Crassus was a round-faced, round-bodied fellow, talkative, vain, and clearly delighted by his own facetiousness, even from that distant angle. Pompey was more non-descript looking with beady eyes, large cheeks, and a Roman nose. He seemed more taciturn and business-like than Crassus, at least at first glance. Neither was especially tall. What they lacked in height they compensated for in notoriety; they were extremely well-connected among the leading debaters of a whole constellation of Southern universities. In fact, the self assured pair had fetched two of the highest prices in the debate-auction at the beginning of the year because, as expected, they dominated regional tournaments without much serious opposition.

Crassus and Pompey were both extremely ambitious, and in particular Crassus, who was already racking up so many awards in the South that there were rumors he would one day break all-time records. Perhaps no one on the circuit thought about debate as much as he did. Statistics about rival debaters, opponents’ in-round and out-round records, and past judging decisions all raced through his mind even in his leisure hours. When not cracking jokes in the assembly room, he could be seen hunched over makeshift charts trying to infer who was winning and losing rounds based on intelligent guesses and any information that was leaked to him by his spies in the tabulation room. Yet for all of this intensity, there was at the time something undeniably ridiculous about the young Crassus that made it difficult for his elders to take him entirely seriously, particularly in the North. Perhaps it was the quadruple onslaught of his size, narcissism, extreme competitiveness, and paradoxical light-heartedness that was responsible for this. Only in the South did those who saw Pompey and Crassus perform regularly understand what a truly formidable combination they could be—like MIT A at their best, but more practiced and with greater affability.

Because Kimel had never seen Crassus and Pompey debate, knew them only as the objects of jokes, and realized that they were a year younger than he was besides, he was in fact not very intimidated by the prospect of facing them in the morning. Crassus was wearing an ungainly jacket all through the tournament that reminded Kimel of a trenchcoat, and he and Lawrence began to call him “Detective Crassus” behind his back. Kimel wasn’t usually so mocking, but he’d promised himself that he would qualify for Nationals and, encouraged by Fabius, was goading himself on psychologically to prepare for combat. In the meantime, however, Crassus and Pompey caught wind of these jokes and resolved not to fall so easily, no matter what they needed to do.

Toward the end of the banquet, Cassius and Marcus came to sit with Fabius and Kimel. Although they’d graduated, they were debating together as the ghosts of MIT and had also broken to out-rounds. Kimel thought to himself that this was probably a way for Marcus to make up the TOTY race to Cassius, which had left him out in favor of Gallus. For his part, Cassius was confident of victory the next day and broke out into song, having memorized “Hey Ya,” popular in those days, and twitching his head along to the rhythm. Fabius almost died laughing. Kimel too found it funny, but his mind was elsewhere. He’d already beaten Cassius twice in his career, at Wellesley and Middlebury, and wondered if he would have a chance to reach the magic third.

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