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Forensics Takes MHS Students to Harvard

Annual speech and debate contest, Feb. 18-20, is attended nationwide.

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These high school competitors do not battle on the gridiron or the diamond. They don't put on pads or helmets, but the protection and preservation of their brains remains of the utmost importance.

These are not what one would usually think of when thinking "athlete." But, what they do requires a lot of skill and, like football, baseball, track and other sports, the potential for glory at their achievement's is no less great.

They are "forensicators."

Those not familiar with Forensics may immediately think of something conducted on the latest episode of CSI. But, this is a different kind of forensics, one that requires the dissection of speech and debate, in an arena no bigger than a classroom. In fact, it is in the classroom.

On Feb. 18, the students in the Morristown High School Forensics program will participate in the 38th annual Harvard University National Speech and Debate Tournament, where they will compete among some of the country's best and brightest debaters, in a competition that culminates a year of regional contests.

"This is their big trip," said Forensics Advisor Chris Kenny, a history and government teacher at the high school. "They've earned it."

Many of the students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, participated in speech and debate through their Gifted and Talented programs at Frelinghuysen Middle School. While that was required as part of the program, these students decided to take their skills to the next level in high school.

"They bullied me into it," said a laughing Sasha Gilthorpe, 16, a junior in her first year with the Morristown High School program. "I'm really interested in politics. And, I'm in theater, so I thought this would be a really cool thing to do."

Her mother, Amy, called it an "academic decathalon."

Sasha's Public Forum partner, Debate Captain Brett Harvey, 16, took to public speaking immediately. His mother, Jayme, said she actually was happy the G&T program made him do speech and debate in middle school.

"He never would have tried it otherwise," she said, calling her talented son more "a science and math kid." But, once in the program, "he fell in love with it."

In Forensics, students participate in a number of public speaking competitions, ranging from back-and-forth debates on current political issues, to dramatic interpretations of creative works, to impromptu speaking, where students are given quotations and asked–in a limited time–to come up with convincing arguments for or against the quotation selected. Preparation and confidence are key if a student wants to move on, or "break," into semi-finals.

The Morristown High School students travel throughout the year to other schools in and around the county for tournaments. Since they usually do not get far beyond Morris, the trip to Harvard has got them champing at the bit.

Captain Nayna Shah, a 16-year-old Junior from Morris Plains, said she was really excited to show the rest of the country what Morristown High School's Forensics program has to offer. "We'll be debating different people," she said. "It'll be a whole new experience."

Nayna's father, Rohit, said he was happy to see his eldest daughter, and 14-year-old freshman daughter Nevi Shah, participating in such a program. "They have to prepare all the time," he said. "They're gaining public speaking experience and a focus on how to deliver their arguments. I wish I had this when I was a kid."

Indeed, students like freshman Jamie Viotto, 14–who eventually wants to be a lawyer–are presenting concepts, such as the pros and cons of wealth distribution across an entire population, they might not otherwise be exposed to at their age.

Some, like 14-year-old freshman Charmi Trivedi, of Morristown, joined the program in order to get over their fear of public speaking. For some, it's simply an enjoyable experience. "It looked fun and theater-y," said senior Stacy Trackenberg, of Morris Township. "And, you can do so many things. It opens up a lot of doors."

And, from Feb. 18 through 20, one of those doors will take them into the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.

"Debate's a crazy thing," Nayna said. "If your kid is debating, you should be really proud of them."

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