Michael Obuchi tied to quit the high school debate team after three years at the end of his junior year. He was burned out, he recalled, and it was just too time-consuming.
But Abbie Booker wasn’t going to let him go that easy. She needed a partner for this past September’s Wake Forest University Policy Debate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Using her powers of persuasion, she asked him repeatedly over the summer to join her. Somehow, she won him over. He agreed to compete in just one more competition.
“I wouldn’t leave him alone,” Abbie said.
“It was a summer-long battle,” Michael added.
Fast-forward to the debate. Seniors Abbie and Michael’s complementing styles left opponents whirling. The energy was contagious and addictive, Michael recalled. “Competing again intoxicated me to keep doing it.”
After Round 2, he passed a note to coach Ellen Zwarensteyn with the words, “I’m back.” Then things really got rolling.
The team finished in the semi-finals by earning a bid to the Tournament of Champions, known as the World Series of debate, which begins April 29 at University of Kentucky, in Lexington. The duo was one of 14 teams in the country invited to the California Round Robin, and they finished in second place, both earning speaking honors.
They are the first East Kentwood team in the school’s history of debate, started in the 1970s, to qualify. The varsity debate team is now ranked fifth in the country.
“It feels incredible,” Michael said. “I never thought I’d be here in this capacity. I always dreamed of it, but actually being here, I never thought would happen.”
The pair went on to win the Blake School tournament in Minneapolis, cementing themselves as the first Michigan team to ever win the title. They took home the championship title at the University of California, Berkeley debate tournament, where more than 210 varsity teams competed. They also both earned top speaking awards. The entire East Kentwood team of 22 competitive debaters also took home awards at several other tournaments this season.
After a strong performance at the the National Debate Coaches Association tournament early April in Orlando, they are looking ahead to another elite tournaments — if they can raise enough money: The Tournament of Champions. They are working to raise $11,600 to cover costs including tournament fees, flights, lodging, meals and ground transportation for six to attend the Kentucky tourney.
The team has set itself apart from every other school and team in Michigan, said Zwarensteyn, East Kentwood’s director of debate and forensics. She has been involved with debate at the school since 1992 and the accomplishment is a result of years of work. “It is really cool. For a school like Kentwood to make its impact nationally is unprecedented,” she said.
What Makes it Work?
This year’s topic is government domestic surveillance. Abbie and Michael cover its impacts on black communities and argue that it’s constructed by racial, gender and economic biases.
“Michael and I choose to take sides that we can personally defend and have personal connections to, so we talk a lot about social justice issues in relation to policy rather than policy itself,” Abbie said. “Being able to go to the Tournament of Champions knowing we are a very competitive team helps you realize how important what we talk about is.”
She continued: “People are hearing about us, listening to us and voting for us. Part of it is that we’re good debaters, but there’s also truth in what we say.”
At the podium, Abbie and Michael play on each other’s strengths and fill in for each other’s weaknesses. Her passion is toned down by his practicality. His straight-forwardness is enhanced by her emotion.
There’s no debating their respect for each other.
“Abbie’s the captivating one,” Michael said. “She draws them into what we are doing and saying.”
Added Abbie: “Michael gives an awesome analysis that is very quick. Teams get lost in the quickness and deftness over time.”
“Abbie is really personable. I take cues from her on how to treat other people,” Michael said.
“Michael helps me learn to distance myself when I am so passionate,” Abbie said.
After graduation, both plan to join college debate teams. Michael has a debate scholarship at University of Iowa, where he plans to major in philosophy and political science or creative writing. Born in Kenya, Michael immigrated to the U.S. when he was 8, after his family won a government lottery for a green card.
Abbie is still choosing between University of California Berkeley or University of Oklahoma to major in biology and possibly minor in anthropology.
But graduation day won’t end their days together on the debate stage.
“They’ll be debating against each other in college,” Zwarensteyn said. “Now, that will be interesting.”