Debate this: Local students making a name for themselves

HARLINGEN — He did it.

Brandon Salas, 16, delivered a powerful original oratory last week at the Harvard Invitational Meet.

The oratory, which he wrote himself, addressed the issue of people working increasingly faster. His performance so moved the judges it placed him in the top 60 out of 266 competitors from across the United States. The “Top 60” was referred to as the “octofinals.”

Brandon, a junior, was one of six students in the Harlingen High School’s Speech Drama and Debate Team who competed in the event last week in Boston. Four of them placed: Brandon Salas, James Montelongo, Irene Tyler and Grant Burbach. James, 17, and Irene, 16, also placed in the octofinals. Students further competed for placement in the top 30, the top 15 and the top 7.

Brandon was something of a comeback kid. He hadn’t placed in the previous event, and yet he’d returned from Harvard a success.

“I shot forward,” he said, to the chuckles and words of congratulations from his teammates.

Tasha Kneis, their sponsor and coach, was pleased with the students’ success.

“It’s the best year ever,” said Kneis, who also teaches speech, drama and debate.

“This is my third year, and every year they’ve just progressively gotten better,” she said.

Grant, 16, placed in the quarterfinals for his performance in “congressional speaking,” qualifying him to compete in the Tournament of Champions in Kentucky April 30 to May 2.

The humorous interpretation event presented quite a challenge to James Montelongo, a junior. He was sent a humorous interpretation skit called, “Drop Dead Gorgeous” which he had to perform before the judges.

“There were mostly women in it,” said James, 17, adding the story was about four women going to a pageant.

He had to create caricatures of stereotypes, and he suddenly, as if on cue took on the persona of one of his characters.

“I want to be like Diane Sawyer,” he said, changing the tone and even the personality of his voice.

His actual performance seemed even more comical by him wearing a black suit. He broke into a rapid succession of wacky facial expressions. His eyes tripled in size as he threw his arms into the air, then he frowned angrily as he pointed his hands toward the audience. Then he was all smiles as his arms went out to his sides.

“I was competing against six to eight people in a room,” he said. “There were no props.”

Irene and Grant, both sophomores, took on the challenges of defending political issues against heated disagreement. Irene competed in the “Junior Varsity Lincoln-Douglas” event. Her resolution was, “In the United States, private ownership of handguns ought to be banned.”

She also enjoyed the challenge of debating her resolution.

“We were debating with different people in each round on both sides of the resolution,” she said. “We were arguing on both sides.”

Grant, who competed in the “Congressional Debate” event, delivered a speech on a related matter about banning the purchase of automatic weapons.

He fielded a barrage of questions during a two-minute period.

“Even if banning automatic weapons wouldn’t solve the problem, is doing something better than doing nothing?” someone asked.

“How will taking no action be different?” he answered. In other words, the same result. No result.

The questions came in rapid-fire, allowing not even a millisecond to prepare for the next question. He said one of the reasons he made it through the session was because he had thoroughly researched the topic and was ready with a response to any question.

“I give a lot of speeches,” said the sophomore. “I keep up with all that. I know my speech.”

He, like the others, feels proud. They all have more confidence for the Texas Forensics Association State 2016 in Austin.

So it is that a significant amount of both intellectual and artistic talent continues to spill out of the classroom at HHS which is beginning to look like a crucible of creativity, with the depth and substance necessary to produce something real.