On the last weekend of April, two of our high school debaters, sophomore Tajaih Robinson and senior Aida Bathily, travelled to Kentucky to compete in the Tournament of Champions, the most competitive debate tournament in the country. In an extraordinary accomplishment, both of them reached the quarter finals of the Lincoln Douglas (LD) section, placing sixth and seventh respectively out of 88 top debaters from across the country. Even more exciting, Tajaih made history, becoming the youngest African-American male ever to make it that far in the LD section of the tournament.
Tajaih made history, becoming the youngest African-American male ever to make it that far in the LD section of the tournament.
LD debate is considered one of the most competitive debate formats, and the topic they were arguing was tough: whether the United States should end the use of plea bargains in our judicial system. To qualify for the Tournament of Champions, debaters must finish as finalists or semi-finalists in two prestigious tournaments over the course of the year, and our scholars were competing against students from some of the most elite public and private schools in the country, including such powerhouses as Hunter and Stuyvesant. Success Academy was one of only a handful of non-selective schools represented, and Tajaih and Aida were among only seven African-American students in the LD division.
Tajaih’s accomplishment is all the more impressive given that he only began studying this challenging debate format in the fall. At the beginning of the year, he wasn’t very good and lost a lot of rounds. But throughout the year, he truly exemplified the SA values of “try and try” and “no shortcuts,” seeking out feedback from judges and other observers whenever he had the opportunity. After the quarterfinal round, I asked Tajaih what had made him so willing to listen to all that tough criticism. “I wanted to get better so people can no longer criticize me!” was his response.
Aida, meanwhile, had to overcome a tough challenge in a preliminary round, when she debated against the 2018 LD debate Texas state champion Matthew Chen. Matthew’s entire squad was in the audience and, shockingly, many were surreptitiously trying to help their teammate by messaging him counter-arguments. I had to ask the squad to shut down their phones and was incredibly proud of how Aida kept her cool. She not only eloquently delivered her points, but she drew on the example of what was happening in the room to make an even more forceful argument. In the end, she emerged triumphant, winning the round with all three ballots in her favor.
The octofinals presented another type of challenge for Aida. She competed against Brianna Aaron, the only other African-American female in the division. Brianna is a top debater — she is the 2018 winner of the Dukes & Bailey Cup for LD Debate — and Aida’s win against her was an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, it was emotional for both of them — they would much rather have been allies cheering each other on than competing as rivals. Happily they won’t have to go head to head again: next year they will be teammates at Wake Forest University, which has one of the top debate programs in the country.
All in all, it was a thrilling (but exhausting!) weekend and our scholars truly did Success Academy proud. Tajaih and Aida showed character, grit, and above all, outstanding talent. With these two as our future lawyers and advocates, we should all be optimistic about the future of our country