When I was about nine or ten a man called Ivor taught me how to play chess. He was Hungarian and very good at chess. I was nine or ten and not very good. I have always found chess irritating. I don’t have the patience for it, and I don’t have the kind of logical mind that can hold patterns and options in it at all. I also have an over active imagination. The only time when I am good at chess is when I am on the verge of losing, then I dig in and become a stubborn bastard. I imagine I am being heroic. I over invest my emotion in the great comeback. One day, while Ivor the Hungarian was going about the business of routinely thrashing me at another game of chess, I became quite frustrated. I was reduced to a couple of pawns and my king, and my king was getting chased all over the place, lumbering one square at a time out of and back into trouble. I said to Ivor the Hungarian that I thought it rather sad that the king, who should perhaps be the most heroic figure on the board, was such a weakling and couldn’t make a glorious last stand. Ivor the Hungarian was outraged. It’s not about heroism, and stands, it’s about the rules of the game! I glowered back at him, and he calmly put me in checkmate.
I have always had this problem. There are rules, and then there is what I sense is right. It makes me an effective and ineffective teacher all at once. It also, I have decided, makes me a very emotional debating coach.
We had a debate today after school. It had turned into an organisational nightmare, but I managed to plead a third team member for us on the day, and get an adjudicator the day before, and once the opposition actually showed up, I felt that we were on track. Our team was good. Two intelligent, passionate Year 12 girls, and an equally intelligent, and wonderfully logical Year 11 girl. The moot was poor when it was pulled out of the envelope because it was a moot about making something compulsory. In this case it was that co-ed schools should be compulsory. Any compulsion debate usually goes to the negating team because all they really have to say is that compulsion takes away choice and that is bad.
We were affirming.
I think we did a good job. Although each of our speakers did well, I thought that our second speaker made a very strong speech, and that our summing up was excellent. I am always astonished by how articulate, thoughtful and passionate the girls I teach are. It took me to my mid-thirties to get anywhere near them, and here they are at the age of 16 and 17 making arguments that wouldn’t have entered my mind at their age. Unfortunately our second speaker’s points were a bit too mature and open-minded for our opposition to cope with. She suggested that single sex schools tended to reinforce gender stereotypes, and promote stereotypical behaviours, that while there were a range of genders available single-sex schools tended to be quite limiting in allowing students to demonstrate this range; at a girls’ school you wear a skirt, regardless of how little affinity you might have with that item of dress. She also suggested that gender cultures that promoted stereotypical behaviours probably contributed in some way to sexual assault and rape.
The boys in the negating team couldn’t really cope with this. Their third speaker, who clearly felt that he was being funny, made some off-hand jocular comments about rape, lesbians, bromances, and man rape. I found it quite offensive, but I really admired the way that the girls responded. Their summing up was excellent, and directly challenged their third speaker’s comments in a very calm, and articulate way, before summarising the issues in the debate.
Do I need to say we lost?
We lost. The adjudicator felt that the third speaker in the negating team won the point on rape because they said rape was a trust crime. Therefore it follows that bringing genders together would not reduce sexual assault. I can concede the adjudicator’s point. In fact, as I said, we were on the wrong side of a compulsion moot and it was always going to be hard to win. On the other hand it seems a shame some immature boys who don’t know (ironically, given the moot) how to behave around girls, and one of whom acted like a right arrogant fool, were given a victory over a team of girls that I admire for their intelligence, thoughtfulness and convictions.
So we return to the matter of chess. In the matter of chess the king can only move one square at a time, and no amount of whining will change that. In the matter of debates, it is not a matter of who is “right”, it is about who makes the better set of points, and defends or attacks points the best. A large part of me – even thirty years after that fateful chess game – resists this though. Surely, I think, everyone can see that I am right?! Isn’t my rightness enough? Even though my opponent might resort to crude jokes, immature quips and insults, won’t people be persuaded the power of my words and the conviction with which I deliver them?
No. John Key will talk about Planet Key, and laugh. John Key will call the opposition parties the Devil Beast, and laugh. And so many people laugh along with him. No matter how offensively cavalier and arrogant. John wins the day. He’s playing by the rules of the House. The smart-arsed retort counts for more column inches than the sober speech on child poverty.
Here’s what I would like to say to my debating team. You did a good job. I admire you. I am on your side, and I believe in you. The lesson we should take from tonight is that we need to get better at the game, without changing our values, but that we shouldn’t walk away from the contest. If we do that then we leave the floor entirely open to fools. Jeering and joking with each other in one long, yawn inducing boorish back slap. But if you stay in it, if you get better at it, well – watch out – we may yet even live in a world of tolerance and compassion.
I look forward to it.