Jennifer Stark can see an easy riposte from a mile away.
She sees rejoinders, rebuttals, cracks in the foundations of faulty arguments, and she’s not afraid to point them out. Coaching debate will do that. And coaching it well, as Stark found out earlier this month, will also result in netting one of the most coveted accolades in her particular sphere: national recognition as a National Forensic League diamond coach.
“I’ve been really blessed to have this kind of success,” said Stark, who is in her seventh year as the debate coach at Ralston High School. “Since my very first year, I’ve had some of the best kids in the world come through this room, full of intelligence and wit and passion. Those are the kids that have made Ralston a place on the map when it comes to high school debate.”
Earning a diamond award as a coach is tied to the performance of the debaters on the coach’s team. For every point a debater earns in competition, his or her coach earns one-tenth of a point.
The first diamond award is given when a coach reaches 1,500 points — that’s 15,000 points earned by that coach’s debaters. A second diamond is given at 3,000 coach points and a third diamond for 6,000 points. The awards can also only come in five-year intervals.
Stark is the first RHS debate coach to earn a diamond award since Charles Tichy, who coached debate at Ralston for 20 years and won multiple diamonds.
“It was quite a shock,” Stark said of the moment she found out about the award. “I don’t keep track of my points. The debaters do, but I didn’t have any idea. Really, I owe it to them.”
Her debaters are quick to rebut.
“She’s always there for us,” said Grant Brown, a freshman Lincoln/Douglas debater. “Whether we’ve won or lost, happy or sad, she’s there for help and support and encouragement. She’s kind of like a mama to us.”
Stark wears the label as a badge of honor.
“I am the Mama Bear,” she said with a laugh. “They’re my cubs. It’s what they call me. We all spend so much time together, it’s like a family. And I think that I am protective of them like a mama bear would be. They’ve got my back, I’ve got theirs.”
Freshman Maggy Morris also said she feels the comparison is apt, given the warm, inviting and intellectually and emotionally stimulating atmosphere Stark promotes in the debate classroom.
“Ms. Stark has the ability to brighten and influence everyone around her in a positive way,” Morris said. “For example, if you or a teammate has a bad round or you perform not so well, then Ms. Stark will immediately come to your side and talk it out with you, providing comfort and brightening your mood overall. Ms. Stark has not only made debate a fun and life-changing activity, but also a second home for all of us debaters.”
What goes for debate in the animal kingdom also finds metaphoric purchase in the world of sports. After all, Stark is a coach. Walking into her classroom as debate practice ramps up is akin to watching the football team go through drills or the softball team take infield.
On a recent practice day, as several of her public forum debaters went through their orations, she stood just to one side. A debater reached a weak point in his argument and cast a sidelong glance at the coach.
“Leave it out,” Stark intoned. “Leave it out.”
The debater immediately picked up the next point. Stark nodded some assent and proceeded around the room to other students.
“Debate is a sport in its own right,” she said. “It’s twice as long as a sports season, going from October to March, then there can be national competitions. It’s draining, both physically and mentally. These kids leave no stone unturned in their preparations. It’s what any good athlete would do.”
Kurt Cronican, who was the No. 1 player on the RHS tennis team in the fall and is a returning qualifier for the National Catholic Forensic League’s National Tournament in Lincoln/Douglas debate, said from his perch behind the podium, Stark is working any debate tournament like a good coach works the game.
“In tennis, I have to think about who I’m playing against,” Cronican said. “Stark is usually already steps ahead of us in that. She finds out who we’re facing, what the judges are like, what the style of it’s going to be and she keeps us in the game like that. She keeps us calm. Other debaters have a partner. In Lincoln/Douglas, we’re all alone out there. She’s the one we can lean on.”
Prior to being named the RHS coach, Stark said she did not have any experience with debate. She vividly recalled her first session with her first team.
“I think that first practice, they were talking about Article 4 of the Voting Rights Act and it took me a good minute to figure out where this was all going and all the different angles and politics they were working into it,” she said. “This was Day One. I thought, ‘What am I getting into?’ My jaw was on the ground. At the time I couldn’t imagine how I was going to do this. Now, I can’t imagine not doing this.”
Neither can her debaters. Many of them marveled at her ability to coordinate debate, her role as a National Honor Society sponsor and a sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
“I can’t imagine life without debate and Ms. Stark,” sophomore public forum debater Andrew Stone said. “She’s such an advocate for us and for other groups. She’s shown us a way to be better students, to be more engaged with people, to be advocates for our own causes.”
Stark will receive the diamond recognition at the National Forensic League’s National Speech and Debate Tournament in Overland Park, Kan., in June, when she also hopes to have at least a few of the 23 debaters on her team competing against the best of the best just down I-29.
Until then, Mama Bear stays busy, protective of her ever more perspicacious young.
“I laugh every day,” she said. “Even on the worst day, by the end of debate class or practice, it’s all worth it to work with the most intelligent kids in the school.”