Skip to content

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.


The Poison Ivy League Part 12: Agrippina Versus Livia

May 3, 2011

The 2002-2003 TOTY race had heated up by Christmas time. Yale A lost the final round of Fordham by a single vote to Yale B, which must have brought rivalries on that team to a boiling point. To Yale’s credit, however, Kimel remembered seeing Tiberius, Livia, Germanicus, and Atticus helping each other to prepare for out-rounds, or more accurately, hearing Livia say that this was so. The Fordham tournament was a low point of the season for Kimel. He performed badly and literally had to sleep on a floor in an off-campus residence. Sulla A and Sulla B were partnered together at went 4-1, winning four in-rounds out of five. They might have made it to out-rounds, had they not spoken a 241/26 between them. Compare this score to Yale A’s 259/15. It was so unusually low that they themselves would often joke about their experience at the tournament in the years to come. It’s interesting that Sulla B’s first impression of Sulla A and Kimel as prospective partners were bound to such difference experiences of success during in-rounds.

The MIT tournament has always been a favorite for Harvard debaters. It is traditionally one of the largest competitions of the year, and the proximity of the campus usually ensures a large field of home-grown participants. It was also, you might remember, traditionally the first tournament at which novices from Harvard were allowed to compete, though Scipio quietly abolished this rule. Kimel’s partner was Rufus, who irritated him when he said that he was voting for Sulla A for President.

The only team from Harvard to break to out-rounds were Agrippina and Claudia. Kimel formed an enthusiastic cheering section for them as they progressed from quarter-finals to finals. Agrippina gave a particularly sound thrashing to Stanford A in semi-finals, an ambitious duo who could never quite make it to the final round of a tournament of any size. Stanford ran the case that the sales tax should be abolished because it is regressive and inherently affects the poor more than the rich. There literally wasn’t much more to the reasoning of the case. In addition to other arguments, Agrippina brought up the fact that many developing countries rely on sales taxes generated from the pockets of tourists, which was an original angle to the case to which the other team had no response.

Claudia was a strong, confident speaker whose self-assurance could be intimidating to other teams. Cato from Cornell joked that to hear her speaking made you feel like you were being sentenced to death by a hanging judge. Her accent was no impediment to the delivery of punches. She is without question the strongest debater Kimel ever saw to speak without a British or North American accent.

As for Agrippina, if she had taken the activity more seriously, she might have become one of the most successful debaters on the circuit. A comparison with Livia would be instructive, which is no small compliment to Agrippina, since Livia was in many people’s opinion the best technical debater of her senior class, male or female. Nonetheless, she spoke in a high-pitched voice that could even be unpleasant to hear unless you were used to it. Agrippina’s voice by contrast was crystal clear and more carefully controlled in tone. Livia would concoct many quick, strong arguments in her speeches to bombard her opponents and hinder them from addressing all of them. Agrippina’s points were fewer, but more quietly observant and accessibly presented. Accessible is the key word—she once broke out into peals of laugher in a round where she had to answer the argument “you can’t give a pony to the pope” (God only knows how that came up in a round) and even coaxed the judge and the other team into laughing along with her. It’s hard to imagine Livia doing that. Agrippina’s beauty would also have been no impediment to success, which sounds like a sexist argument, but is nonetheless true on a circuit composed primarily of undersexed men, or at least ones who don’t mind sacrificing their weekends to the gods of rhetoric. Livia was also beautiful, but her piercing, mocking intelligence supplied her with a harder edge. She was all-business in rounds, meticulous and cooly logical.

Whatever the case, Agrippina made it clear that she was too cool for debate. She was always deliberately above it all, which Kimel found irresistible at the time. She only attended two or three tournaments the entire season. He was still blindingly grateful to her for the previous year’s Wellesley tournament, his reason for debating, and he was invariably thrilled whenever she joined the team on a trip. Some time after the tournament, he even delivered online flowers to her in celebration of her admittance to Harvard Law School; it’s the thought that counts. In the final round, she ran Josephus’s case (Josephus was another sophomore on the team) that Santa Claus should give gifts to bad children. Kimel delivered an excellent humorous floor speech and was strongly applauded by the large audience, the highlight of the tournament for him, but Germanicus of Yale B stole the show with his speech that included a hilarious quip about getting dysentery for Christmas in third world countries. Yale A won the round and consolidated their position at the top of the TOTY board. But Yale B and MIT A were not quite beaten yet.

The Poison Ivy League Part 13-A Great Battle and an Epigram

May 3, 2011

The three most talented freshmen on the Harvard team were Sulla C, Horatius, and Scott. Sulla C was a former high school debater and the personification of self-satisfaction. Still, Kimel enjoyed conversations with him, especially since he was literate in the Classics. It’s to his credit that he eventually realized the error of his ways and shaved his beard. He was a flashier speaker than Scott, who gave short, unadorned speeches. At the time, Kimel thought that Horatius was the best of the lot. In some ways, he reminded him of a younger Germanicus. They both had an erudite charm about them and made observant points in pleasant voices. Considering that debating with a sophomore might work well for his election plans, Kimel invited Horatius to debate with him at the Brown tournament.

Unexpectedly, they broke to quarter-finals and were pitted against Yale A. This was a stroke of good luck, since Brown was one of the largest tournaments of the year and few people broke to out-rounds. The combination of Kimel’s manic style and Horatius’s scholarly detachment evidently worked well. Kimel decided to run his case about “The Stranger” that had served him so well in quarter-finals of Bryn Mawr. It would be the last time he would run it.

The round was intense, and if Tiberius were partnered with anyone less than Livia, Harvard might have snuck to semi-finals. But Livia did a fine job behaving contemptuously toward the case, and pointed out that if it would be absurd for an atheist to take communion, it would be equally absurd not to take it. Kimel commented in his final speech, rightly, that this was taking the point too far. It was enough for an atheist to show his contempt for religion by ironically agreeing to take communion—if he ate it and it meant nothing to him, he would score an intellectual victory over social conventions. When Tiberius rose to say that Kimel was making a new point, which is not allowed during final rebuttals, Kimel performed a little tap dance to distract the judges from his opponent’s lies. Kimel was disappointed that he lost the round and glad in a petty way when Yale B ultimately won the tournament over Yale A. Like at Fordham, a single vote decided the outcome. Overall, it was a memorable competition. The members of the Brown team even put on a musical before semi-finals that included the line, “APDA, where else does Yale beat out Harvard?”

Kimel and Josephus became good friends at this point—you’ll remember him as the Harvard student who sacrificed his case about Santa Claus to the final round of MIT for the sake of Agrippina. He had a strong friendship with another sophomore, Tertius from the Yale team, a good-natured man who was genuinely concerned about ways to train and retain talented novices on the circuit. The three enjoyed an impromptu trip to Hyannis Port one weekend, which turned out to be a ghost-town in the off-season. There was nothing to do there but walk along empty beaches and look at expensive-looking compounds. They drank in a local bar (Cola, being underage) and saw a jazz show. When Tertius challenged Kimel to write an impromptu poem about the spectacle, he immediately produced:

“Dancing to the rhythm of the music is an art,

But not when you’re a floozy over sixty and a tart

Whose partner is a pumpkin who can barely move his back—

Your dancing isn’t dancing but a rhythmic heart attack.”

That made Kimel proud of himself. Although people often made fun of Josephus behind his back for his cantankerousness and high-pitched voice, Kimel always thought that he was genuine and well-meaning. The peculiarity of his character was that he seemed to have no sense of self-consciousness. It’s perhaps to his credit that he was always deliberately oblivious to any of the constant jokes at his expense. He was also planning to run for the Presidency, but Kimel had a feeling it would not be hard to defeat him.

When the time came for the 2003 Wellesley tournament, in honor of Kimel’s performance there the previous year, Cyrus from BU asked him to debate with him. Seeing this as a prime opportunity to qualify for Nationals by reaching a final round, Kimel accepted his invitation, but decided to take it back when Scipio suggested that he should instead partner with a novice in honor of Harvard tradition at the tournament. Mindful of the upcoming election but also willing to “give back” since his career was based on the indulgence of Agrippina the previous year, Kimel agreed to go with Scott instead of Cyrus. This would prove to be a fateful partnership.

The Poison Ivy League Part 14-As Good as a Victory

May 3, 2011

By the time of the Wellesley tournament, opportunities to qualify for Nationals were looking increasingly slim. The dominance of Yale and MIT was so complete that not a single Northern sophomore, however talented, had managed to make it to a final round with the exception of Tertius, whom Germanicus had led to victory at Amherst over Fabius and Pallas. Now, the debate year was all but over.

At the end of February, Yale A’s victory at Princeton and Yale B’s failure to even break at that tournament virtually assured Livia and Tiberius the position of Team of the Year, with Gallus and Marcus in a distant third behind them. As is probably clear by this time, in the TOTY race, two-person teams are awarded points based on victories in out-rounds at various tournaments, with the most points coming from winning large competitions. The title of TOTY was, in Kimel’s opinion, the strongest indicator of excellence because it rewarded consistent performance over several different contests. Kimel remembered thinking even in 2003 that if any prize were worth winning on the circuit, it was that one. It seemed even better than a victory at a National Championship which, while exciting, was based on all the variability inherent in an individual tournament: judges’ preferences, case selection, etc.

Since Kimel thought that Yale A was the team that was most intimidating to hit that year, he considered that they deserved the award. That he did so non-grudgingly was a credit to his good nature. They had never been especially nice to him, though he looked up to them. In fact, they called him Sulla to the bitter end, even during their out-round at Brown. Kimel felt bad to see Germanicus and Atticus looking dejected when they learned that they were kept out of the break at Princeton. He approached them and congratulated them on a first-rate year, regardless of the outcome of the TOTY race. Now they pinned all of their hopes on Nationals. Some would say it’s to Germanicus’s credit that after Princeton, he insisted the TOTY race was over despite the upcoming tournaments of a handful of small schools that might have helped to tip the scales in his favor again. He would not let a small competition run by non-entities on APDA, he said, decide the outcome of the title. This gesture seems broad-minded but was, some might say, insulting to the programs of certain universities and obviously done in contrast to Tiberius and Livia’s alleged attempt to commandeer the Fairfield tournament the previous year in pursuit of the title. The ending of this TOTY race is somewhat ironic considering what happened in 2004-2005, but that comes at the end of the story. Whatever the case, Kimel’s class breathed a collective sigh of relief that they could avoid hitting Yale A and B at upcoming competitions.

At Wellesley, Scott and Kimel performed surprisingly well together as Harvard Disney Channel (everyone went by the name of a different television station). They moved efficiently from round to round. Kimel always tended to do well with low-key speakers who spoke more slowly than he did and could support his barrage of points with illustrative details. None of their in-rounds were especially noteworthy. They ran the case that lotteries should be banned and enjoyed a round about “The Simpsons,” doing well armed with their specific knowledge about the sitcom. Having won their first four debates, they were pitted against Jason and Horatius in the final round, who were also “all the way up.” Jason ran a case against them about the inheritance tax and beat them in a close round. The judge warned everyone that she would take off points for every second anyone spoke over-time. What a mean person.

There was a Harvard dino named Gaius who had helped to manage and organize the Wellesley tournament for two years running. For some reason which few people understood, he decided to break directly to semi-finals rather than quarter-finals and announced that thanks to the team’s lucky star, four Harvard teams would be hitting each other. Harvard Disney Channel was among them.

This announcement was met with groans and curses. Messalina, Fabius’s indomitable girlfriend, propelled herself to the front of the room and faced the crowd, even instinctively putting her hand on her head for a moment as if she were rising on a formal point of order in a round. Did he mean to tell her, she shrieked, that he, a Harvard dino, was breaking four Harvard teams to semi-finals, when this might be her teammate Melissa’s only chance to break? This was quite the assertion; there was no reason to think that Melissa couldn’t have other chances in the future. In fairness to Messalina, perhaps she meant “this year.” Still, the anecdote quickly became popular on the Harvard team, and dear Melissa soon became an inadvertent object of merriment. Sulla B even suggested that she be invited to a “breaking party” where the guests would smash plates around her but give her ones made of indestructible plastic.

Messalina might have been melodramatic in her accusations, but Gaius earned the enmity of virtually every school that attended the tournament besides Harvard. He went on to become the most scratched judge at Nationals, eliminated by almost every Southern team, who had a grudge against him for their own reasons—apparently, a Catholic university planned to hold a tournament mocking Christianity, and he’d made this known to the administration and had the team formally admonished. He was so insulted that he left the circuit entirely and the Wellesley tournament became a thing of the past. What there was of a team simply collapsed without him.

Despite the controversy, Kimel was thrilled that Scott and he had a chance to qualify for Nationals. After all, Kimel had lost so many quarter-final rounds that year. He knew that this was probably his last and best chance to break to finals. He and Scott were pitted against Jason and Horatius again. This time, they were on Government. They ran the case, written on the spot, that in Israel, students should be required to learn Arabic in school rather than English. This was an excellent case. As a gentleman, Kimel even gave the other side some room to maneuver by saying English should be taken as an elective rather than required alongside Arabic. The round gave Kimel scope to discuss interesting issues about language-education that most debaters were unlikely to have thought much about. He especially emphasized the symbolic importance of requiring Arabic in terms of the intentions of Israel to get along with its neighbors. To make the point even stronger, he explained that even the most ardent Israeli nationalists should support his proposal, since martial-intelligence could be better conducted if the army were widely literate in Arabic. As it stands, Arabic is considered less prestigious a class than French, and the best students almost invariably choose the Romance language as an elective. Finally, Kimel talked about the sense of empathy that comes from reading the literature and speaking the words of another culture.

Scott and Kimel won the round and advanced to finals. Everyone broke out in applause, and Cynthia, the Vice President and Novice Director, cheered loudest of all. The memory was so wonderful that Kimel forever retired the case. Perhaps he didn’t want it to be sullied by a loss in a messy round, as his case about Julius Caesar was. But looking back, this was a misguided decision, since the case might have served him well for two more years.

Kimel was thrilled to have qualified for Nationals—the first member of his class to do so virtually the week before elections, and with a novice for a partner. In the final round, he ran the comic case that the Seven Dwarfs should have rejected Snow White when she asked to live with them. It was a very funny round in which Kimel spent large portions of his speech imitating the Wicked Witch. He lost by a single vote to Scipio and Trimalchio, the Treasurer, who had also just qualified for Nationals for the first time. The team was immensely happy for everyone, and Scott and Kimel eventually became best friends.

For the record, Cyrus won top speaker at the tournament. Kimel’s life might have turned out very differently if he had been his partner that weekend instead of Scott. The randomness of existence is chilling.

The Poison Ivy League Part 15-The Election of the New Team President

May 3, 2011

By this time, Scipio’s administration was drawing to a close. There were two final pieces of legislation. First, he agreed to make the office of VP Tournament Director the second position up for grabs at elections rather than the VP Comp (Novice Education) Director. There was really no good reason for this change beyond a nod to Fabius’s vanity over Cynthia vis a vis the prestige of their positions. Next, he created two new Vice-Presidential positions and eliminated the position of Treasurer. Now, there would be a Vice-President of Finances and a Vice-President of Operations, aka the Secretary. All four VPs would be equal in status as a nod to the large number of competitive people in Kimel’s class—Sulla A, Sulla B, Jason, Josephus, Aemilia, Rufus, and Porus, to name only the most active.

We’ve now come to a turning point in the story, the 2003 election. With the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to say why the competition meant so much to Kimel. Whatever the results of what amounted to an intra-team popularity contest, he was then the most successful debater of his class. No one broke more than he did with a greater variety of partners—literally a different person every week, including two novices. Ultimately, something about Sulla A’s self-image and the favoritism shown to him by senior members on the team inspired a deeply competitive instinct in him. Certainly, competition with Sulla was the main reason that Kimel attended tournaments virtually every weekend (he almost never missed them), and why he submitted himself to doing grunt work on the team, not only at the Harvard tournament, but long afterward, like when he personally dragged cartloads of T-shirts from the factory to his bedroom, storing them for a (failed) fundraising effort.

However, naïveté proved a detriment to Kimel’s plans, not only in his adoration of Agrippina (any happiness he found in debate he still ascribed to her influence), but in his belief that the sheer volume of his work could actually win him the election. As a Roman history enthusiast, he should have realized that politics wins elections, not self-sacrifice. When it came to politics, Sulla A excelled. He held private interviews with almost everyone on the team, requesting their candid advice and, rumor had it, lyingly promising to support all of them in their own election plans. He even brought his roommate to vote on election day. (In fairness, this roommate did complete the basic comp requirements to be on the team). In fact, Sulla A was not universally popular, and there were some upperclassmen who did not want to see him elected. What makes matters worse, though, is that Kimel eventually found out that he wasn’t even in second place for the position in the mind’s eye of the team, for Fabius had recently taken to Jason and decided to undermine Sulla A’s chances by supporting him for office.

The night of the election, Sulla A typed out his resume’ and handed it out like a ditto in primary school, waxing lyrically about the advantages of selecting him. He was the most famous debater of the class, he said, whom more people on APDA knew than anyone else. Moreover, he was an original Member at Large, while others running for office were appointed to the position unilaterally afterwards. None of these details had anything to do with being an effective captain, particularly since Sulla might have been well-known on APDA, but in those days it was for running tight cases, a reputation that would be difficult for him to shake off.

Kimel’s speech was short and sincere, the best among the candidates. But nothing that either Sulla, Jason, Josephus, or he said amounted to much of a difference. What mattered was the roasting that took place when they all left the room to allow the voters to weigh their merits. They waited in the hallway for what felt like an hour. Then, they returned and heard the announcement. Sulla A was the new President. Kimel clapped for him as genuinely as he could.

Thanks to the Fabius, the next position up for grabs was VP Tournament Director. Kimel ran against Rufus and Jason. Pallas, the only senior to regularly debate, asked them if they would favor well-known teams at the competition by ensuring good-judging for them. To the candidates’ credit, they all said no, though this is in effect what always happens. Again they waited in the hallway, again for a long time. Then they were readmitted to the room. Jason was the Tournament Director. Kimel clapped again, with greater enthusiasm this time. He went on to win the VP Comp Director election after a comparably short wait in the hallway. His most formidable competition was Sulla B, who was perhaps better suited to the role than Kimel was, who had trouble remembering the names of new acquaintances. Next, Porus won the VP Finances election.

The final position available was VP Operations. Sulla B lost the election to Aemilia on a close decision. The chief argument of Scipio and several upperclassmen was that it would be a mistake to completely exclude females from the Board. Kimel wondered, though, if making a girl the Secretary, of all positions, was sending a much more progressive message. Whatever the case, Aemilia was a practical, sweet-natured person who could, it was hoped, balance out the larger than life personalities of the other office-holders with her level-headedness. Sulla B, Rufus, and Josephus were shut out completely.

Although Kimel was disappointed to lose the Presidency, he took the election in good part and was happy enough with his position as Comp Director. At Nationals, however, everything was about to unravel.

The Poison Ivy League Part 16-Kimel is Left Speechless

May 3, 2011

By the end of the season, Jason and Sulla B also managed to qualify for Nationals. At Mt. Holyoke, Jason debated with a senior from Yale who, relegated from the A and B teams, had never quite managed to climb to their heights. Since Jason was not close friends with him, it’s not obvious how the partnership came about. They triumphed over the boys from Stanford A and won the tournament. Sulla B was partnered with Cynthia when he qualled, losing the final round of Providence College to Sempronia from the Brown team. She was a self-confident junior notorious for her love-and-hate dynamic with her classmate Gracchus, a flamboyant womanizer. This was the jokester who composed the tongue-in-cheek musical at the Brown tournament earlier in the year. Kimel wasn’t present at either of these competitions. His last contest before Nationals was Swarthmore, where he partned with Tertius from Yale. Tertius was a paragon of wholesomeness as he always was. Kimel and he broke to octo-finals and lost a close round to Sulla A, who went on to lose quarter-finals very undeservedly to a bad natured team from Columbia. Oh well, thought Kimel. Interestingly, no teams from Harvard broke at the Yale tournament the following week.

By this time, most of the two-person teams for Nationals had been chosen, and not to Kimel’s advantage. Agrippina would be with Claudia, of course. More surprisingly, Scipio and Pallas planned to debate together, leaving Fabius out. Sulla A would be going with Sulla B, and, eventually, Jason with Fabius. Irritated that he was excluded from these arrangements, Kimel invited Scott to partner with him. He didn’t know Scott well then, but rumor had it that he was one of his only supporters for President, and Kimel was eager to reward his loyalty.

Nationals was held at Brandeis that year, not too far from Harvad. Still, the whole team was booked into a hotel in accordance with tradition at Nationals, since the festivities usually continue for three days, including a banquet at which seniors give farewell speeches. Kimel was glad he’d have another chance to spend time with Agrippina before she graduated; what a pity they’d never managed to partner together after their first charmed encounter, he thought.

For the first day, Kimel’s dynamic with Agrippina was at it usually was. He was wide-eyed and deferential; she was by turns mocking and sarcastic, confidential and sweet. But on the second day, after a bad round, she sat alone in the General Assembly Room, sulking. Kimel came to speak with her. She began to toy with him. Did he really think, she asked, that other people on the team liked him? Kimel said that he hoped so. Then why didn’t he win the Presidency, she laughed. Then she said Kimel should think twice if he thought he was among friends. Finally, to tell the truth, she didn’t like him, and never had, since the Wellesley tournament the previous year.

For a moment, Kimel didn’t know what to say, since everything was so unexpected. Finally, he asked Agrippina what he had specifically done to make her feel this way—cloying as it sounds, he was under the impression she treasured the memory of their time together at the Wellesley tournament, as he did. She couldn’t say what he’d done, just that he was hyper-competitive and most people thought so.

Kimel never learned what he had done to anger Agrippina. They honestly never overtly argued with each other, and he’d even forgiven her for her rude insinuation right in front of him a few months earlier that Sulla A would win the Presidency over him. Kimel subsequently learned from Scott that Agrippina had spoken out against him at elections, as did Trimalchio, whom they’d just met in finals. Agrippina’s reasons for disliking him were vague. Trimalchio complained that Kimel was rude to him by asking to be Leader of the Opposition in his place when they’d gone to the BU tournament together. What this has to do with the kind of President Kimel would have made is unclear.

Kimel took all of this in very bad part. He was so embarrassed and disappointed that he almost began to cry. He skipped the banquet and senior speeches and locked himself away in his hotel room in high dudgeon. The thought of facing anyone on the team again made him cringe. By and by, however, boredom got the better of him, and he wandered around the lobby of the hotel. He began to think mournfully about his priorities, and considered going home.

Then, Arianna found him. At first, she repeated what Kimel already knew. She wasn’t sure, she said, why Agrippina disliked him, but Scott had spoken up for him very earnestly and said that Kimel was nothing but kind and good-humored to him when they’d debated together. Then, she confided that Kimel won the VP Comp Director position by virtual acclamation, which, if he thought about it, proved that the team thought he was a good person. There was no better or more friendly personality to look over the novices than he, nor anyone more deserving of the job. He could count on the fact that he had not just friends on the team, but real admirers.

Until then, Kimel didn’t know much about Arianna other than that she’d done a terrible job in a practice round he’d arranged with her at the beginning of the year. Through hard work, she had improved enough to just miss the break at Wellesley. Now, she was a Member at Large and eager for the success of her peers. Kimel would never forget her kindness to him on this occasion. One of the only women on a team drenched in testosterone, she awkwardly straddled a line between the sophomore class, to which she belonged, and her novice status, which aligned her with the freshmen, and knew all too well what it felt like to be an outsider among friends.

The Poison Ivy League Part 17-Nationals, 2003

May 3, 2011

Nationals broke to quarter-finals that year, as it had the year before. To Harvard’s satisfaction, two of their teams qualified for out-rounds: Scipio and Pallas, and, more surprisingly, Fabius and Jason. The former were hitting Yale A, and the latter MIT A, so the cards seemed stacked against them. Kimel decided to watch Jason’s round.

Sulla A and B looked very dejected as they walked into the assembly-room. They’d just missed the break by losing to the top team from the University of Virginia, two young women they knew little about. Sulla A was furious at the outcome. The topic of the round was whether a small church that condemns gambling should accept a large donation from a member who had won the money in a lottery. The Sullas pointed out that Jesus Himself consorted with prostitutes and tax-collectors, hating the sin but loving the sinner; if Kimel were in the round, he would have brought up the example of the prodigal son, which shows that the Church should welcome the efforts of those who have strayed. At any rate, Kimel wasn’t there, so he couldn’t say who deserved to win. Perhaps the judges were sympathetic to the efforts of seniors over a pair of upstart sophomores.

Everyone expected MIT A to make short work of Fabius and Jason. The styles of the speakers left a strong impression on Kimel. Marcus performed as he usually did, delivering insights and bluster in equal part. But Fabius, at his most competitive and alert, matched him point for point. Then, when he saw the judges agreeing with his analysis, he gained renewed stores of confidence and began to speak with a greater and more powerful eloquence. On the heels of this performance, Gallus had decided trouble with his speech. He was apprehensive about the possibility that the round could be his last, and knew that Fabius had delivered more dangerous parries to Marcus’s attack than he might have anticipated. The winner of that year’s SOTY (Speaker of the Year) award, Gallus was nevertheless the most variable of his classmates in terms of his oratory, sometimes giving speeches so polished that they sounded memorized, and at other times descending into confusion, as he did in this round. Unfortunately for Gallus, like Fabius, Jason was at his most fluent and confident. There seemed to be little that Marcus could do at the end of the round in his rebuttal. As everyone waited for the results, one thought was on the minds of all. Would the reputation of MIT A be enough to save them? In the event, it wasn’t. Fabius and Jason progressed to semi-finals, ending their opponents’ careers.

Fabius and Jason were against Yale B next. Triumphant over Pallas and Scipio, Livia and Tiberius were facing the University of Virginia in the other semi-final round. Most people expected an all-Yale finals. Indeed, like the avenging angels of the fallen MIT, Yale B trounced Fabius and Jason. Atticus was perfectly capable, as he always was, but Germanicus was just devastating in his control of the rapt attention of the room. The announcement that Yale B would be advancing to finals did not come as a surprise. The announcement that they would be facing the University of Virginia, however, did.

Against the case “should parents tell their young-teenager that they smoked pot in college?,” Yale A launched their last assault. Kimel watched the round more than once on videotape and came to appreciate the tactics of Virginia. Knowing they could not beat Yale on a case about economics, politics, or the law, and not favoring these sorts of topics anyway, they chose a to debate an open-ended issue with fairly intuitive arguments on both sides. Their friendliness and sincerity in the round as they spoke about the right way to bring up children showed itself to stronger advantage than Yale A’s cold artistry. They seemed to be the cream of the crop that year among Southern debaters, and they deserve credit for running more than open-ended cases. Kimel considered their round with Tiberius and Livia a virtual draw, but could understand why Yale lost, 2003’s Team of the Year.

In finals, the girls from Virginia ran the case, Opp choice, whether a typical college student should give money to a street beggar. Germanicus was at his most glorious in the round, saying, among other things, that the money could be donated to third-world charities where you could be sure it was being used for good rather than to enslave people to drugs. He almost received a standing ovation after this speech. The judges’ vote might have been 7 to 6, but the mood of the room was clear—114 to 46 in favor of Yale.

So, Germanicus and Atticus were the 2003 National Champions, and Livia and Tiberius the Team of the Year. The Fates were even kind to MIT A, since they’d also won a title that year—that of North American Champions in the great annual tournament at which Canadian teams compete against Americans. Harvard had no speakers in the top ten SOTY, nor any teams in the top ten TOTY. Out of everyone, Kimel was the school’s highest speaking participant at Nationals, coming in twelfth. Scott and he won four out of six in-rounds, and would have just missed the break had the tournament included an octo-final round, as Nationals usually does.

The Poison Ivy League Part 18-Kimel’s Second 29

May 3, 2011

Sulla A’s Presidency began with some gossip. Rumor promptly magnified it to undeserved proportions. Yale, Harvard, and Princeton participate in an annual “Triangular Tournament.” Each college fields a three person home-team to meet an opponent and sends out a three person away-team to debate at one of the rival’s schools. Cash prizes are given out to participants, regardless of success or failure; at Harvard, about 5000 dollars are split between the two top-ranked speakers out of the six total. Sulla seemed to be inviting criticism when he appointed a casual acquaintance of his as judge of the preliminary rounds to determine the winners of the money. A student at the Kennedy School of Government, he was probably as good a person as anyone to judge the round. But when Sulla was named one of the two victors (Claudia was the other), it sparked widespread annoyance. Scipio was particularly up-in-arms at the rumor that Sulla had been the only person to deliver his speech by heart after informing the inexperienced judge that the main criterion for evaluating the round should be how thoroughly a speech was memorized (!) Of course, Sulla was likely innocent of any wrongdoing, but the fact that this sort of story was sincerely believed by not a few perceptive people proves the degree of bad-feeling his victory caused.

Kimel came in fourth in the contest and was sent off to debate Atticus, Germanicus, and Tiberius at Yale. They ran the case that the British Government ought not have banned child-sacrifices in colonial sub-Saharan Africa. The round was messy and not very memorable. Harvard lost. As usual, Kimel was impressed with Germanicus, and disappointed that this was his first and only opportunity to experience a round with him. By contrast, Kimel was glad not to have to face Tiberius again. Once, when asked in an interview what Shakespearean character he most identified with, Tiberius had answered Iago. Certainly, he enjoyed his reputation for deviousness, and when it came to intimidating other teams or poking holes in careless arguments, he was a sort of genius. Although Tiberius was physically disabled, it says something important about the nature of APDA that this inspired neither shows of pity nor condescending admiration. On a playing field of minds, it was more often than not others who seemed handicapped by comparison with him. In many ways, there are few competitive venues more truly level than a debate-round.

Agrippina caused one last bit of trouble before graduating. After Jason and Kimel successfully ran Incest-Fest (the ribald in-house tournament that ends the year), in accordance with team tradition, Sulla A was subjected to the traditional initiation ceremony for new Presidents. Everyone poured freezing beer on his head, which Kimel most enjoyed. Then, old and new officers on the team were invited to go out to a restaurant together. Cynthia carelessly invited Josephus to come along, though he’d lost every election. Once everyone was in the restaurant, Agrippina began to complain. Why was Josephus there? Sulla made a split second decision and asked Josephus to leave. He melodramtically swept away, furious with insult. Sulla probably didn’t mean to hurt his feelings. But adept at obtaining power, he evidently still had lessons to learn about its exercise. When Kimel sent Josephus a letter apologizing for the confusion, Sulla Emailed him not to undermine his authority again.

The final event of the debate season was the annual Hybrids Tournament, a tongue-in-cheek competition at which debaters from different schools partner with each other. Kimel was teamed with Cyrus from BU. He had just lost quarter-finals of Nationals to the University of Virginia the week before and was eager to leave the circuit in style. Kimel stole the show, however, by speaking his second 29 in a round in which he mentioned “The Great White Devil.” This was, by miraculous chance, the secret word the tournament directors had chosen before the competition began as a gag, promising whomever spoke it an automatic 29. Kimel thus became the top speaker at Hybrids and the only participant in the history of APDA to speak not one but two 29s, a pleasant way to end the season.

Kimel’s last round of the year was semi-finals. He lost by a single vote to Livia from Yale and Sempronia from Brown. Livia didn’t even uses notes in the round, speaking off-the-cuff. One of the judges later told Kimel that the reason she voted against him was “politics;” for personal reasons, she said, she didn’t want to see Cyrus in finals. Unhappily, this wouldn’t be the last time Kimel would hear the eight letter word mentioned as a reason for a judge’s decision. But against Livia, lethally capable and haughty to the end, who can say what the most just ballot should have been.

The Poison Ivy League Part 19-Interlude on Roman Laughter and Domestic Arrangements

May 3, 2011

We’ve reached the second of the promised interludes. Besides debate, sophomore year was an eventful time for Kimel. He edited and directed an ancient play, abandoned his roommate, and lost another election.

By 2003, the Harvard Classical Club had been dormant for almost a century. Verus, a senior in the Classics department, decided to revive it along with the annual tradition of putting on a show. Hearing by chance that Kimel had experience in theatre, he contacted him, and together, they made arrangements for the production. Rather than performing it in the original language, as was apparently done in the old days of the club, they decided to use a translation produced by students and only keep Latin for the songs. They chose the “Menaechmi” of Plautus, a musical comedy of errors from the second century BC about identical twins.

Once they received translations from almost a dozen people, Verus and Kimel edited them all into a coherent whole, emphasizing the salaciousness of the original Latin. Kimel then had the privilege of directing the play in the Agassiz Theatre, a columned, ivy-covered building on the old Radcliffe campus. Calpurnia, one of his closest friends, was the stage manager and did a fine job putting up with his demands as director. Kimel even tempted two senior faculty members into accepting bit parts. Overall, the production was a major success and received some of the best reviews of the year. The tradition continues to this day, and there is still a poster of the play in a gold frame in Boylson Hall, the home of the Classics department.

While Kimel was in the midst of this production, he put in a request to leave his roommate and was transferred to an apartment at the top of lonely tower for his pains. This roommate was Kimel’s freshman year acquaintance cursed with a nervous tic. Although he’d broken up with Cynara, whom Kimel liked before he did, bad feelings remained between them. Making matters worse, he slept in the spacious front room, and Kimel in a small bedroom in the back, with the bathroom connected to this bedroom. This led to constant intrusions, keeping Kimel up at night, and with his sleep interrupted, he became less and less tolerant of the roommate’s habits. When the roommate got particularly drunk after a certain party, it sounded like he was dying in the other room. That’s when Kimel definitively decided to leave him. It’s unfortunate that things ended on such bad terms, made worse when Kimel disappeared suddenly with all his things, gone completely without warning.

On the heels of the successful play, sleeping as soundly as Rapunzel ever did, Kimel ran for President of the Classical Club. But a clique of five sophomores, friends known to each other from the classes that they shared, were the only other members of the group who showed up at elections, and they voted for themselves for every position, forcing Kimel out. This was truly outrageous, and he left the Classical Club on bad terms, particularly with Verus, whom Kimel blamed for everything, though there was really little he could have done.

Sulla A and Kimel decided to be roommates the following year. Sulla’s current roommate, Apuleius, would be there too. Readers familiar with their history might be surprised at this turn of events, but Sulla and Kimel always left their rivalry to debate rounds and were cordial as social acquaintances. They both enjoyed their privacy and stayed out of each other’s hair. While their dynamic did not work to their benefit in debate partnerships, they were to make fine housemates.

The Poison Ivy League Part 20-Overview of the 2003-2004 Debate Season

May 3, 2011

In many ways, the 2003-2004 debate season represented a pitiable collapse after the graduation of so many dominant teams. Even the most experienced seniors were tremulous and callow in out-rounds compared to the glory that had been Yale and MIT. To put it poetically, they were like so many chicks emerging from hidden nests, spared the talons of hawks but taught to fly too late. It was really anybody’s guess who the next Team of the Year would be. In fact, the eventual winners had one of the lowest cumulative point totals in APDA history, proving that their dominance was not exactly dominant. For Kimel, his memory of the season was grounded more in great stories than great rounds. Here was all the drama of Messalina and Fabius and Metella and Lucan, Princeton A, B and C at each other’s throats, the interesting progress of Sulla A’s Presidency, and the excitement of winning his first tournament.

Messalina and her partner, a junior named Alexander, started off the year by losing the Williams tournament to Licinius from Cornell, another junior and former Novice of the Year. He didn’t debate very often but invariably performed well when he did. The previous year, Cornell’s Licinius, Titus, and, in particular, Cato had managed to sneak into several out-rounds but had yet to win a tournament. They were all three adept at running dry cases and not below meta-debate—arguments about the nature of debate itself, like whether the Government successfully met its burdens, etc. The boys from Cornell would eventually became masterful speakers in out-rounds, comparable to the best speakers from the past when they were at their best, but not yet.

As Kimel watched the final round of Williams, he thought to himself that its real star was Messalina. Until then, he’d never seen her debate, and really only knew her as Fabius’s high-strung girlfriend. Though she lost on a 4-1 decision, she proved herself to be very insightful in the round, especially good at suggesting creative analogies. On another occasion, for instance, she brought up the example of playing an old-fashioned video game, stopping and starting repeatedly without the option of saving, to describe the process of pushing law cases through to the Supreme Court again and again. Unfortunately, like Josephus, she delivered speeches in a voice that was more squeaky than melodious, and others dismissed her talent more readily than they should have. Self-conscious and insecure, she didn’t take this lightly.

APDA was probably a stressful environment for Messalina, who had gone to college young and was still as slight and fragile-looking as a child. Misogyny is a general problem on the circuit thanks to the overwhelming majority of men involved with the activity and the fact that debate rewards stereotypically masculine characteristics: aggressive wit, argumentativeness, and a cocky insistence on being right instead of reaching a compromise. Of course, female participants have always done well on APDA, but in many ways they faced an up-hill climb. Assertive, they might be belittled as bitchy. Soft-spoken, they might be discounted as too demure. Kimel saw more than one woman break out in tears when discussing the difficulty of finding respect, let alone success, on the circuit. The very language of successful debate was dotted with sexist and violent imagery. If you lost to someone three times, you were his or her “bitch,” and it was possible to “skull-fuck” a contest by winning all out-rounds and the top two speaker awards. Those who survived on APDA needed to be tough enough to transcend stereotypes and outdo very self-important people in élan.

Livia was one of the most successful participants Kimel ever saw to develop a completely intimidating in-round and out-round persona, conveying a larger-than-life, more belligerent version of herself that more often than not carried her to finals. As the new season opened, none of her sisters could quite match her in effectiveness or reputation. Sempronia from Brown, the top speaker at the Williams tournament and future Speaker of the Year, was talented at broadcasting a “character”—loud and very insistent—that commanded the respect of small rooms, but the mask became notoriously ineffective in out-rounds, where she went from seeming commanding to unsure. No one ever lost so many quarter-final rounds as she did. Messalina was not as polished as Livia or even Sempronia, but armed only with her intelligence and high vocal register, she became one of the year’s most successful participants, sneaking deep into out-rounds again and again and outlasting some of the best teams of the year. Denied the respect she deserved as a speaker and thinker, she learned to attract attention by acting out the highs and lows of her relationship with Fabius on the public stage. When she did so, she could descend into a parody of herself, but insecurity can sometimes be mistaken for vanity, and she was always very polite to Kimel. Overall, he came to consider her one of the most memorable characters of his entire college experience.

Kimel didn’t break at Williams but watched Jason and Porus lose quarter-finals in a hot, sticky room that smelled of cabbage. The Sullas also broke to quarters and lost. The following week’s Smith tournament didn’t turn out much better for Kimel or for the rest of Harvard. The teams of Sulla B/Trimalchio and Fabius/Messalina (the Harvard-Amherst hybrid) both dropped in quarter-finals. Cynthia and Josephus advanced to semi-finals. A team from Maryland, Piso and Plancinus, ran the case against them that there should be a sin-tax on junk food. The pair beat Harvard very handily. Outspoken and rough, the boys had a sort of lively chemistry between them. They’d survive to cause trouble to many good teams in the days ahead. Their devil-may-care attitude didn’t always work to their advantage, though. In the final round at Smith, they ran the shocking case that Marty in the film “Back to the Future” should knowingly sleep with his mother when he visits her in the 1950s. Vergil from NYU, against whom they ran it, did not find it very funny. A college administrator was in the room, and the round was an embarrassing waste of time; Maryland lost in a landslide. Then again, mocking cases in final rounds were still commonly run in the South, and with sectional tensions still as raw as ever, people chalked up the awkwardness in the air at Smith to bad taste from Dixie.