Canton student’s success spurs peers

DIXFIELD – For six years, interest and participation in Dirigo High School’s Debate Club sputtered along like an engine needing a tune up.

Then last year, Sara Ray, a talented sophomore from Canton, did the unthinkable.

Coming out of nowhere, she exploded through the club’s obscurity barrier by winning the Maine National Forensic League’s District Tournament and the right to compete at the league’s national tournament.

This year, even though Ray opted to attend school in Limestone, interest in the club surged as the group aspired to reach the same plateau, said adviser Brad Conant.

“They saw that winning it could be done and although they got close this year, they all want to win that thing next year. I can see it in their sights,” Conant said.

Carthage junior Shannon Irish, who calls herself Sara’s little protege, placed sixth at the national qualifier this year. She also split a decision with the student who won the MNFL’s district tourney this year and garnered two honorable mentions.

“I wouldn’t be half the debater if it wasn’t for Sara,” Irish said. “She taught me how to debate, how to write a case and argue. Because of Sara, people have heard of Dirigo now. She also rose our standard of excellence.”

Dixfield sophomore Amy McLeod agreed.

“Being a new team, she proved we could make it as far,” McLeod said. “She gave me a standard of excellence to build all of my style on.”

Ray and the Debate Club also gave McLeod the confidence and assertiveness she lacked.

“I got into debate because I heard about it in middle school. It’s the place that’s kind of where I fit in. It’s my sport. I’m better at academics, but I get picked on by a lot of people because I’m in academics.

“But, I’m like, a nerd, and this gives me a place where the nerds are the empowered ones,” McLeod added.

The club competes in the MNFL’s Lincoln-Douglas Debate, modeled after the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas campaign in Illinois in the 1850s.

The Maine debate competition pits two people against each other, with one arguing the pro side of a topic. The opponent argues against the premise, then they switch sides.

This season’s topics were:

• When in conflict, academic freedom ought to be valued above community standards.

• When in conflict, globalization ought to be valued above national sovereignty.

“We had to argue either side, saying what was right or wrong. We got splattered at the states, but then turned it around at nationals,” said Alison Kerr, who made it as far as the third round at the national qualifier on March 1 in Scarborough.

“The competition was really good this year. It was fierce. Some of the coaches said it was the best competition in years,” Conant added.

To win, both Kerr, a senior from Dixfield, and Irish said you have to look at everything as an argument and be inquisitive.

Winning is “knowing and understanding philosophy more than anything else,” Irish added.

That was Ray’s forte last year.

“What we learned from Sara last year is that she stumbled onto Plato and she specialized in him and no one else did. If someone else quoted him, she made it look like he misquoted Plato. But she didn’t know it would work as well as it did, so we found that’s a good thing to work on,” Conant said.

Other members of Dirigo’s Debate Team were Ben Van Lieu of Dixfield, Nicole Belskis of Dixfield, Heather and Jessie White of East Dixfield, Norman Mitchell of East Dixfield, Curtis Bucher Jr. of Peru, Alan Austin of Dixfield and Mallory LeBlanc of Carthage.

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