Shall we torture him?

Some of our 9th graders at the Halloween Parade last year as Zombie Cowboys.

Some of our 9th graders at the Halloween Parade last year as Zombie Cowboys.

Debate Day always inspires a certain amount of nerves and a certain amount of mischief. I write the topics on the board and split twenty ninth graders into groups. Our theme today, following several weeks of ‘American slang’ vocabulary in the same vein, is “Cops and Robbers” – or, more accurately, “FBI and the Mafia.”

Five minutes of prep. Ten minute rounds. It’s a hodgepodge of cross-fire and muttered soliloquy. I let it run until they break out the ad hominems.

I love Debate Day because it gives me a chance to see my students from a slightly closer vantage point. Who are they when it’s just them in front of the class? Who do they become under pressure? What do they have to say?

Question: Should we (the FBI) use torture tactics to get information from a known gang member in custody?

Group 2 settles into the front row desks as Group 1 takes position – each team occupying a corner of the front of the classroom.

Round 1
Šimon v. Sam

Šimon is short in stature, big in character, sweet in demeanor, and one of the more responsible students in class (depending on who he’s sitting next to). He assumed position of Team Leader very quickly. Sam is soft-spoken and taller than any drink of water you’ve ever seen. His English is top-notch.

Šimon (craning a little to look up at his opponent and bouncing on his heels in excitement): We shouldn’t torture the gangster because we’re the good guys. It’s wrong and we shouldn’t do it.
Sam: But it’s the quickest way to get information that we need.
Šimon: We can find other ways. Torture shouldn’t be an option.
Sam (blushing): But this is the most efficient option.

A whispering behind me draws my attention away from the debate. Apparently half our judging panel doesn’t understand the word “torture.” We pause the debate for translation which takes several minutes as we continue to discover (in waves of realization) that most of the students present don’t know the translation of the word in Czech, including a few of the debaters.


Šimon returns to his team continue coaching – admirable, considering he wanted to be on the pro-torture dialogue.

Round 2
Kristyna v. Tomaš

Kristyna is full-lipped and doe-eyed. She’s a sweetheart and dresses like a champ. She doesn’t often speak in decibels loud enough to hear, but neither does her opponent. Tomaš is a nervous smiler. He pulls out his shaky, weak-kneed grin every time I try to speak to him in English. We have yet to have a conversation with words spoken on both sides, but his grin is worth the effort. It could win an Oscar.

Kristyna (taking us by surprise and jumping right into the fray): We can’t torture him. It’s wrong.
Tomaš (smiling sheepishly): . . .
Kristyna (trying to catch Šimon’s coaching from the sidelines): It’s. . . It’s wrong?
Tomaš’s teammates begin assisting from the sidelines as well. There are, after all, plenty of valid reasons to torture people, they remind him.
Tomaš (after some coaxing of legal and slightly-less-legal variations): It works.


Round 3
Petr v. Matouš

Petr is a gamer and a world-class geek (a classroom essential, if you ask me). He’s one of a few kids who always says ‘hello’ to me in the hallways and he’s a decent student. Matouš is more of a cool kid, at least, as far as I can tell. I’ve not really ever known enough personally to be sure. But beneath his laid-back airs and apathetic shrugs, he’s got a rather genuine layer of something resembling gold. Both are higher-level English speakers.

Matouš: If we don’t get this information, other people will be hurt.
Petr: This is horrible. We can’t do this. Only terrorists do this.
Matouš: And the FBI, apparently. Now. Because we’re doing it.
Petr: No, bad guys do this. You’re a . . .
Matouš (lifting his arms in a ‘come at me, bro’ fashion): Go ahead. Say it.
Petr (with conviction): You’re a terrorist.
Matouš, as a statement, walks off.


Round 4
Terka v. Matyáš

These two are actually cousins, though you wouldn’t guess it. Terka is an adorably frustratable person. She gets tongue-tied and bashful if someone blinks too hard, let alone if someone asks her to say something in front of the class. Matyáš, on the other hand, is Mr. Golden Mouth himself. He’s the kid that can talk himself out of trouble almost as fast as he gets himself into it. The only quality these two have in common is that they are both rooted firmly in some undefinable goodness that shows itself when least expected and reminds me why I love being a teacher.

Matyáš: If we don’t take this course of action, a lot of other people are going to be hurt or die. You may say it’s wrong, but it’s better than letting innocent people be killed by this gang. It’s our moral obligation to find out what this gang member knows.
Terka: I think . . .
Matyáš (grinning mischievously at his cousin): Yes, Terka? What do you think?
Terka (blushing furiously): I think . . .
Matyáš (his very familiar, very endearing teasing now unleashed in full): Sorry, I didn’t hear that. What was it you said?
Terka stamps her foot and looks pleadingly at Matyáš who says something to her in Czech.
Terka: . . . Okay.
Matyáš (to the judges, as Terka walks over to his team): Terka is joining our side now. I’m pretty sure we should get extra points for that.


Round 5
Kaja v. Marek

Kaja is another quiet one, with long, nut-brown hair and clear blue eyes. Very pretty, very good in class, very quiet. She is one of my more well-behaved students, even if her English is a little weak. Marek is the closest thing to a drop-out I’ve encountered while teaching. He’s short, blonde. . . A bit of a player or a heartthrob or whatever they’re called these days. His English is lacking. With minutes left on the clock, he sidles up to Kaja.

Kaja: . . .
Marek: . . .
Kaja: . . .
Marek (with a pleasant impatience): Well, start!
Kaja: . . .
Someone suggests that Marek go first. What does he think about torturing the gang member?
Marek (with a look of surprise): I just think it could be a lot of fun.

Uproarious laughter and the ringing of the school bell ends the last round. It’s a close vote, but non-torture FBIers win by one hand.

I collect tests and journals from my desk and make my way into the hall amid the scraping of chairs and zipping of bags. They’re all laughing and pushing and teasing. None of them seem capable of torture, despite what they might insist.

But I’m sure they’re capable of other things. In them I’ve seen flickers of greatness, sparks of passion, pebbles of kindness, which I’m sure, with time and care, will develop into the steady foundations of the new world. Their world. A world I want to be in.


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