David Scofield: Stop-Start education

Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

I coach debate at Paul Cuffee High School, and I carpool with Mr. Richards, a retired education consultant and part-time oracle. Mr. Richards is always at the Van Wickle Gates at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in his tidy Prius. As soon as I get in the car, I try to shake the social and academic debris out of my mind. When we arrive at Paul Cuffee after a 15-minute ride, we try to embody the credo from the TV show Friday Night Lights: “Clear eyes, full hearts, debate lesson plan, can’t lose.” I tell Mr. Richards weird things about ancient Greek history, statistics on bunions, the struggles of co-existence in an all-male house and my plans for employment after graduation. I prod my fellow student coaches with questions, and Mr. Richards applies his wry therapy, cheering for a tale about a good email and murmuring approval when we talk about the development of the debate league. Then we ask Mr. Richards about his sons and everything that happened from his 20s to his 60s. He laughs and says things like “opportunities to do good are everywhere!”

Traffic often comes to a standstill near the junction of three high schools a mile away from Paul Cuffee. At that point, we focus on the catalysts for our debate lesson. Mr. Richards transforms into an education strategist, gauging the necessary time for activities and highlighting ways to simplify the material. We talk about implementing each stage of the pre-written plan. Students at the high school junction pour over the curb and run through traffic, chatting with each other. We marvel at the miniature, spontaneous debate leagues all over the city, and I think about how the gas station across the road must be home to a lot of unrecorded personal growth for students.

After practice, my home is the final drop-off point for the volunteer car pool. By this leg of the trip, we are forecasting grand debate feats to come and wondering how we will develop them. One day, cars were parked unusually tight on each side of my home street. Our conversation fizzled as Mr. Richards pulled off the road to let oncoming traffic pass. “This is a different street every time,” he said, laughing and taking a hand off the wheel. Urgency vanished from the universe for a moment. After so many decades of attending to hotheaded students through the Providence bustle, Mr. Richards still seemed to find supreme pleasure in idling on the side of the road.

For the past two years, I have volunteered and then coordinated for the Rhode Island Urban Debate League. The RIUDL goes to 13 different high schools, teaching policy debate to prepare students for college, employment and a lifetime of engaged citizenship. Debate attracted me when I transferred to Brown because the volunteers loved to be involved, loved to pay attention to the opinions of others, loved risking the approval of others. With this involvement came a still more sacred experience: bouts of confusion. When a debater runs out of arguments, or a group of travelers has to pause indefinitely, one’s sense of purpose turns bare and susceptible to positive change. I hope to carry with me the spirit of focused vulnerability from debate, and from Mr. Richards’ carpool, wherever I go.

David Scofield will spend the next year learning the secrets of retail and shoe sales.