Snazzy (albeit smaller) Nostrum Graphic
Past episodes     Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe     Nostrum Correspondence Corner
Subscribe to Nostrum      Home

(New to Nostrum? We recommend starting at the beginning.
Totally lost? Find out who's who in the Reader's Guide or track the "Ref #" links to the previous scene with those characters.)

Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 142

Here Come Da Parent Judge, Here Come Da Parent Judge

     Jasmine Maru has found a corner of the Algren-on-the-Beach high school building where she can be alone. It is an alcove on the third floor, with a window from which there is a view of the eponymous seashore over a half mile of store and house rooftops. It is quiet in this alcove, aside from the distant din of a Polician reading evidence like a high-speed Gregorian chant. Jasmine needs the quiet for a very good reason. She has just been judged again by Chip Dwindle's father. For the seventeenth time.

     The sky is full of big puffy clouds that commingle with patches of light blue over the water. As she looks east, Jasmine imagines that in Paris -- which she would theoretically be able to see if she were high enough up, had good enough vision, and the earth wasn't round -- someone is standing looking west, bemoaning the Gallic equivalent of Mr. Dwindle.

     Parent judges. They are the bane of LD. That they are also part of the rationale of LD is beside the point, or at least beside the point when one parent judge in particular has judged you at virtually every tournament you have ever attended, and dropped you every single time. How could he do it? It is beyond Jasmine's comprehension. How could the odds always work out that he always judges her at every single tournament? That too is beyond Jasmine's comprehension. She only knows that it happens, and it always happens the same way.

     Welcome to the Bahamas.

     When Lincoln-Douglas Debate was created, to a degree it was a reaction to Policy, which had become too parochial in its speed and its argumentation. If you were not a Policy savant, you had no idea what was going on in a round. LD was created to provide a debate arena where community members at large would not be lost, where they could not only follow the debates, but evaluate them. Parent judges were the natural offshoot of this. If argumentation was meant to be persuasive, it was also meant to persuade the average adult audience. Policy might teach skills of research and logic and fast thinking, while LD would be more philosophical and, to a degree, oratorical, although never (theoretically) valuing oratory over debate skills.

     Tell that to a parent.

     In the decades that LD has existed, three distinct groups of judges have evolved. First, there are the coaches, and while there are good coaches and bad coaches, and both good and bad coaches can make good or bad judges, at least there is a presumption on a debater's part that if the judge is a coach, there is the possession of a clue in the back of the room. Further, coaches have the virtue of regularity, in that debaters see them week after week, and learn to understand their judging style, however wacko it might be. If Coach Doakes hates speed, it shouldn't take you too long to slow down for him. If Coach Marmalade thinks values and criteria are to LD what chlorophyll and sunlight are to artichokes, it shouldn't' take you too long to emphasize how your weighing structure achieves your value premise.

     The second group of judges is former (or, for younger students, present) debaters, and these are roughly analogous to coaches, in that good and bad debaters can both be good or bad judges, except that debater judges tend to bring a lot more to the evaluation table. That is, while perhaps the broadest band of coach judges is tabula rasa, doing its best to evaluate your debating, the broadest band of debater judges tends to evaluate your argumentation. They perceive arguments like melons in a produce store, which they either buy or don't buy. "I don't buy that argument" is a phrase that debaters regularly (if silently) respond to with, "But it wasn't for sale." Despite this difference in style, to a degree debater judges have the same familiarity factor as coaches, in that they are already known in the circuit, and most debaters know what they expect in a round. If you know how to adapt, you will do so, and you will sell your arguments as in a farmers' market, and devil take the hindmost.

     The third group of judges is that great unwashed for whom the activity was indirectly created, the parent judge.

     Most LDers are in the fourteen-to-eighteen-year-old range, and most parents are in the thirty-to-death-by-old-age range, yet the initial response of most parents to the activity is, It's too complicated for me. Presumably these are the same parents with VCRs and microwaves that blink perennial midnight, who haven't read a book since they graduated (or dropped out of) college, and who daily thank their Creator for giving them menial jobs where they never have to use their brains.


     Part of the problem with parent judging is that no one seems to want to take responsibility for the poor parent who is doing a great service to the team by chaperoning and filling a judge slot. No one wants to train the poor schmo in the first place. No one wants to actually explain what the activity is all about. Flowing? Find one LDer who doesn't bemoan how parents can't or don't flow, but find one LDer who has ever spent three seconds giving flow training to the parents accompanying his own team. No one gives them any instructions; they just toss them into rounds and close the door, secure in the knowledge that Ma or Pa is judging some other team, and thus no skin off our team's noses.

     But enough of blame. Most parents come and go, doing their duty and having done with it, and you never see them again, so little permanent harm is done. Those parents who do come regularly usually manage to figure things out, and become exactly the judge that the creators of LD intended.

     And then there are the Mr. Dwindles of the world.

     Seventeen times now -- at least -- he has judged at tournaments, and at least as far as Jasmine is concerned, he has no more idea what he is doing today than he had the first minute he showed up. He sits in the back of the room, a small man with big eyeglasses and no hair and always wearing a bowtie, staring at the debaters. He has never been known to take a note, much less flow. He presumably does not own a pen. Jasmine has inevitably faced him when debating opponents of lesser ability. In early random rounds, it has always been against a novice running the wrong topic, and in bracketed rounds it has always been what should be a virtual walkover for her.

     She has lost every single time.

     She has tried everything. Emotional debating. Cold debating. Signposting. No signposting. Talking slow. Talking slower. Talking so fast even she didn't know what she was saying. Winning every point. Losing every point. Upholding her value. Dropping her value. Smiling. Frowning. Flirting. Chewing gum. Passing gas.

     Nothing has worked.

     And now she has faced him again. In the fifth round, where she was probably three-one going in. An important round, which if she had won, she would be assured of breaking, while now that she has lost (she does not know this for sure, but she does have the prior evidence of sixteen drops to support the hypothesis), it is all up in the air. And of course, Mr. Dwindle is a notorious point ogre, a firm believer that twenty-five points is more than adequate for the best debating anyone has ever seen in the history of spoken language, while anything less is penalized accordingly.

     Jasmine sighs. Through the window she can see no more blue sky: clouds seem to cover the entire ocean.

     She turns and heads back down to the cafeteria to wait for the break-round postings.


This Guy Says the Horse Can Do

     Thomas Starbuck, Esq., cannot remember the last time he was in a high school cafeteria. He is struck more by the lack of familiarity than the expected general nostalgia. There are no disinfectant smells from his youth, no teachers patrolling the area like freelance storm troopers, no wise asses smoking off in a designated area in the corner. The noise level is high but not punishing; everyone isn't shouting over everyone else, and there is no sense of rush to get through lunch in order to return to class. A leisurely repast of inedible cold pizza is laid on a central table, and people are haphazardly grabbing a paper plate of the unappetizing looking slices whenever the spirit moves them. Of these people, one in twenty also takes a helping of the all-iceberg salad in the oversized acrylic bowl, while few go so far as to skip the brownies. The entire supply of red delicious apples has remained untouched, and Starbuck imagines that their lack of popularity will continue through the rest of the day.

     "So what happens now?" the lawyer asks Hamlet P. Buglaroni, Jr. Starbuck is sitting at the Nighten Day team table with Buglaroni, Griot Goldbaum, Trat Warner and Ellie DiBella and the Tarleton twins. Trat and Ellie and the Tarletons are playing Spades.

     "We wait," Buglaroni says.

     "I wanted to watch some debating," Starbuck says. "That's why I'm here."

     "They're figuring out the break rounds," Griot explains. In front of him, beside a folded Boston Globe, is a plate with two brownies, which he is picking apart and eating crumb by crumb. "They take the top thirty-two debaters and rank them according to seedings to pair them, then they assign three judges to listen to them."

     "How do they figure out the seedings?" Starbuck asks.

     Griot hands him a round-five schematic. There are numbers next to about a third of the names. "That's pretty much it," he says.

     Starbuck looks at the sheet. The numbers range from one to thirty-two. "You figure these are the best debaters?" he asks.

     "They're the top thirty-two," Griot says licking his fingers. "In order."

     "How do you know that?"

     "I just know it."

     "Griot is the king of the schematic breakers," Buglaroni interjects. "He can tell you how everybody's doing at any point in a tournament, plus why."

     "How?" Starbuck asks. "Is there some mathematical scheme that explains the listing?" He notices that Griot's numbers seem to cover the sheet willy nilly.

     "Some of the tab programs are like that," Griot says, "but the newer versions print up at random."

     "If they print up at random, how do you interpret them?"

     "You look at who's hitting who round after round. The first two rounds are random, but after that, they're bracketed high low according to points. There's some exceptions, when two people from the same team would hit each other, that sort of thing."

     "And you can figure out the seedings from that?"

     "Well, the starting point is basic knowledge of the contestants, of course. I do know everybody pretty much. Then you just watch it unfold from there."

     Starbuck smiles. He knows that this is obviously total guesswork on the part of the chubby kid with the Fu Manchu mustache, a math game to pass the time, of which there is apparently an abundance. "How many of these do you think will actually break?" he asks.

     Griot licks his lips of some ambient brownie. "Thirty. I'm not usually wrong by more than two. I do factor in the judge pool."

     "You factor in the judge pool?"

     "Sure. I mean, if the judges are all parents, they tend to like a certain kind of debater, while other types of judges like other types of debaters. You've got to factor that in from the start, otherwise you can really go wrong."

     "What else did you factor in?" Starbuck asks.

     "Age of the debaters is important, how many prior rounds on this topic, past performance. There's lots of useful statistics."

     "And where do you keep these statistics?"

     "In my head."

     "Griot can tell you every round that's ever happened, who won and who lost," Buglaroni says.

     Griot laughs. "Not every round. Just the ones I know about."

     At that moment, someone comes bounding into the room yelling, "LD varsity double octos," and there is a mad stampede in that direction. No one from the Nighten Day table moves.

     "You're not interested?" Starbuck asks.

     "Someone will bring the schematic to Griot," Buglaroni says. "Someone always does."

     A minute later, Buglaroni's prediction comes true. Two students in dark suits flank Goldbaum, handing him a double-octos schematic. A group quickly forms behind them. Griot scans the sheet quickly, then pulls out a pen and begins marking it.

     "These are the seedings," he says, handing it back to the original two students, who devour it like gospel. It seems as if half the rest of the tournament is looking over their shoulders.

     "Can I see that?" Starbuck asks.

     Griot retrieves the sheet and hands it to him. Starbuck compares it to the earlier schematic that Griot had marked up.

     Of the thirty-two people who broke, thirty-one were on Griot's original list. In his new analysis of the pairings, there are only three different seedings, all toward the middle of the pack.

     "No bad," Starbuck says, handing him back the two pages. He turns to Buglaroni. "Your name isn't on there?"

     "I'm in the junior varsity pool. Those results should be out in a minute."

     Starbuck turns back to Griot. "Your name is on there. You had your own seeding as number one."

     Griot nods as he pulls back his chair to stand up. "And now I've got to go on and do something about that. Hand me the sheet again."

     Starbuck hands him the sheet. Griot quickly circles half the names

     "These are the winners," he declares.

     "You're sure of that?"

     "It's my final answer." He walks off with a small group.

     "I assume Griot is your best varsity debater?" Starbuck asks Buglaroni, absentmindedly tucking the sheet into his jacket pocket.

     "He's pretty good, yeah."

     "Anybody else on your team good?"

     "Well, Jasmine broke. She's a junior, and she's pretty good. Trat and Ellie, that couple that went off after Griot, they're okay but not great. They're just going to watch his round."

     "What about the JV? What about you?"

     "I'm okay. Camelia, she's also a freshman. She's pretty good."

     "We're not bad either," one of the Tarletons offers, now that their Spades game has broken up.

     "Not bad at all," the other adds.

     "For a novice."

     "Not bad at all for a novice."

     As the twins begin to talk like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, Starbuck's mind closes down. He reaches across the table for the newspaper Griot has left behind. It is folded in the middle of the sports pages. Starbuck cocks an eyebrow.

     The page is devoted to the lineups of today's events, and there are numbers next to virtually every team on the page, predicted scores for football, both professional and college, and for basketball, again both pro and college. Even the starters in the horse races are marked, which is especially meaningful since today is the Breeder's Cup, the biggest fall racing event. Griot has predicted the outcome, in order, of every single race.

     Starbuck is not convinced that Griot's performance predicting the winners of the preliminary debate rounds was in any way meaningful, but he is a careful enough man not to discount evidence because on first glance it seems insignificant or difficult to understand. He slips the newspaper into this briefcase. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to see just what kind of handicapper young Master Goldbaum really is.

     "JV LD double octos!" someone calls.

     It is time for Starbuck to watch a debate round.


Will Mr. Dwindle drop Jasmine again at her next tournament?

Will Griot correctly handicap every game of the day?

Will Starbuck enjoy watching Buglaroni's double-octo round?

Did Buglaroni really break?

Is the Evil Webmaster simply lying in wait to attack us when we're not looking?

We would sit through Emeril reruns before we'd learn the answers in our next episode: "Gorilla My Dreams, or, Hand Me that Monkey Wench."

Go to the next episode due Mar 8, 2000.