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Big Minds On Campus

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The Hagerty High School debate team travels to compete inside the historic halls of Harvard.

It’s not uncommon in this area to see a business proudly proclaim it’s been serving Central Florida since, oh, 1992. So when several members of Hagerty High School’s debate team recently got a chance to compete at Harvard University, the antiquity and history on display around them made quite an impression.

After all, when Harvard was established in the early 1600s, swampy Florida still belonged to Spain.

“It was definitely a change of pace,” says Hagerty senior Damian Thomas, who made some history of his own at the competition (more on that later). He was especially struck by a plaque he came across dedicated to the Harvard Class of 1776. “It seemed like a Colonial town. Everything was at least three times as old as my mother.”

(Let the record show Damian daringly made that final remark with a sly grin on his face and his mother in earshot.)

Julie Love, who coaches the debate squad at Hagerty, says all 11 students who made the February trip were awed by the traditions surrounding them.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal that we sat in the same classrooms as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, all the way up to the Obamas,” says Julie, who also teaches honors English at Hagerty.

There were other elements of Harvard’s hometown – Cambridge, Massachusetts – that reminded the Hagerty students they were far from The Sunshine State.

For one, it snowed. A lot. And, says Hagerty junior Grace Maddson, cars were not the dominant form of transportation.

“It was totally different,” says Grace, 16. “Everyone was walking everywhere.”

But otherwise, Damian and Grace were completely in their element, using ironclad logic and precise language to successfully argue various positions during the competition.

Grace qualified for the quarterfinals, while Damian became the first Hagerty High student to qualify for the semifinals at the Harvard competition.

Having already qualified for the semifinals in a national tournament in Washington, DC, last year, Damian has emerged as the most successful debater in Hagerty High history.

He demonstrated his intellectual curiosity at an early age, says Damian’s mom, Melanie, who eventually resumed speaking to her wisecracking son.

Damian was reading about history at around age seven and engaging in deep discussions with his parents on such weighty topics as the death penalty.

“He was actually debating me,” Melanie says. “Damian had very strong opinions, and he was defending them.”

Damian’s parents only encouraged this curiosity.

“We never tried to shield him from what’s going on in the world,” says Melanie. “Anything he wanted to know we explained to him.”

Damian joined the debate team in his freshman year. He describes good debating skills as “the ability to holistically assess all angles of a topic.”

For Grace, the debate squad seemed a perfect fit. Even as a youngster, she was never shy about public speaking. Likewise, she never shied away from an argument with her older brother.

“I’m used to getting my point across,” she says.

Initially, Melanie didn’t plan to accompany her son to Harvard. Debate competitions usually take place in small classrooms with little space for family or supporters. Harvard’s centuries-old rooms left even fewer seats for proud parents. Melanie’s plans changed, though, when she learned Damian had reached the semifinals, and so began her own little odyssey.

Melanie booked a flight at 2:00 in the morning and was on her way to snowy Boston around dawn. She then jumped in a taxi whose driver claimed to know nothing about the Harvard campus.

But out of sheer luck, the driver dropped Melanie off right in front of Harvard Hall, just in time to surprise her son.

Melanie says the Hagerty debate team has consistently stood toe-to-toe with other schools nationwide that dedicate much greater resources to their squads. She has nothing but praise for how Coach Julie has run Hagerty’s tiny-but-mighty program.

“She is tough on these kids in a good way,” Melanie says. “She pushes them to excel, and it shows in results.”

For her part, Julie gives the credit to her students and their unceasing devotion.

“I’m proud of this team and how hard they have worked,” Julie says. It’s an honor to be a part of this.”

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