I went to a banquet last night for my youngest son’s high school speech and debate team. I haven’t been to a banquet in years and was surprised at the format. After a brief series of introductions by one of the teachers, the incoming president of the club invited each of the twenty graduating seniors to the lectern and they all made a speech.
Most had no idea they were going to give a talk in front of about eighty peers and adults, but if they were nervous they didn’t show it. And speech/debaters or not, they proved this bit of wisdom: Mark Twain, who recovered from his frequent financial disasters with speaking tours, and who was the funniest and most skilled public speaker of his time, was once interviewed about the art of speaking in public.
“How long does it take you to prepare for a five-minute speech?” the journalist asked.
“About four hours,” Twain said.
“That’s incredible,” the journalist remarked, awestruck. “And then how long does it take to prepare for a two-hour speech?”
“I can do that right now.”
Brevity, according to one who knew, isn’t merely the soul of wit, it’s the most challenging form of it. Some of the speeches involved direct or indirect bragging about college acceptances, some mentioned how their minds had been formed by debate, most talked about the mental beatdowns they’d been exposed to at debate tournaments, all expressed thanks, one evoked tears. None of the students mentioned their devotion to bike racing.
I’ve seen a lot of young people fall off into the abyss of competitive cycling at a young age. With help from their parents, friends, and coaches, they have foregone things like debate in order to race a bicycle. Whereas the intellectual residue from debate, like music and art, stays with you for life, little remains once you quit riding around in circles for trinkets. In fact, people who quit cycling at any age are often aghast as they gaze around the garage at the bikes, the wheels, the clothing, the racks, the trainers, and the endless pile of gadgets that now have no meaning, no use, no application to anything, and no value except what they can claw back on e-Bay.
So ever since I ran across a kid fully soaked in the Kool-Aid who seems to be at the right age to make all the wrong decisions, I have thought about pulling him aside and saying, “Get off the bike. It won’t take you anywhere. You’ll never make a livelihood at it and it will derail every other meaningful opportunity currently in front of you. If you want to race something, race your mind, and race it with books.”
But I didn’t.
Instead, I’ve thought about the kids at the debate banquet and what they have ahead of them–four years at some of the best colleges and a “bright future.” But how bright? I graduated from one of the best debate programs in the history of the NFL — which was christened the National Forensic League decades before the pro football merger — and I don’t think any of the people I went to high school with have better lives than some of the young people I’ve seen grow up as bike racers. And if they do have better lives, I don’t think you can pin it on their experiences in debate.
Moreover, what is a better life? More money? Bigger house? More bragworthy college for you or your children? And unlike youth, which is the only time window that you can reach for the stars as an athlete, aren’t books and education available throughout your life?
And what about that small handful of kids who are filled, consumed, obsessed, absorbed with passion? Sure, it’s sad to see kids pushed and prodded through cycling by vicarious-thrill-seeking parents who themselves don’t/won’t ever pin on a number, but what about the ones who do it in spite of their families, the ones who you can tell from a mile away that they live to ride their bikes? Isn’t that pursuit worth the weight of every book ever written?
I think it is.
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