Montpelier High School debaters head to national tournament
By Gayle Hanson
Staff Writer | May 14,2013
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur Staff Photo
Montpelier High School debate champions Tom Nowlan and Nina Merriam sit with their trophy in the school’s library.
MONTPELIER — To hear Montpelier High School debate champions Nina Merriam and Tom Nowlan tell it, the two have a history of debating one another that goes back to their years at Main Street Middle School.
“We used to fight all the time,” said Merriam, a senior heading for Smith College in the fall.
“I don’t remember what we argued about, but we were always taking different points of view,” said Nowlan, a junior.
Now, the two have parlayed their head-butting skills into a trip to Birmingham, Ala., in June where they will compete in the National Speech and Debate Tournament, a contest that pits teams from around the country against each other. It wasn’t an easy row to hoe.
“When we first started working together all of our meetings would turn into debates,” said Merriam. “Now, we do a lot of work on the Internet in preparation.”
If the two students have been arguing with each other since middle school, it was under the guidance of Marijke Russo, MHS English teacher and debate coach, who taught Merriam and Nowlan the ins and outs of presenting an argument in a formal context. Students don’t get to pick their subject or which side of an argument they’re on — instead they work with the topics and guidelines set for them by the national organization.
Students must be able to argue either the pro or con position on any debate topic. And when the Montpelier pair placed first in the regional championships, competing against students from schools in three states, it was by arguing in favor of government-supplied health care.
When they go on to the national championships the topic will be drones, and there is more than $200,000 in scholarship money in the offing.
“We were really surprised at the high level of debate that we have here in Montpelier,” Merriam said. “Not every town was as well prepared as we were.”
Both Merriam and Nowlan credit their participation in debate for making them much more effective communicators, both in and out of school.
“I just want to emphasize that this is a transferable skill,” said Merriam.
The two admit they are very different in terms of both their personalities and presence, as well as the type of work they do in preparation for debate.
“I came into debating with a lot of fire and passion,” said Nowlan. “I’ve always been contentious and argumentative. Nina has definitely taught me to express myself in a calm, controlled manner.”
Merriam, the more measured of the two, usually spends a lot of time in research and preparation.
“We’re the total opposite in our styles. He’s passionate and really quick on his feet, while I like to prepare a lot for building our argument,” said Merriam, whose older brother also debated at Montpelier High School.
Both students could agree on one thing: that it was worth their time to get involved with debating at MHS and sticking with the program.
“It takes a lot of time,” said Nowlan. “So my advice to other students thinking about debate is to stick with it.”
While the two will travel in June to Alabama for the national debate championships, Merriam is headed first to Georgia along with four other MHS students to the National Academic Quiz Tournament in Atlanta over the Memorial Day weekend.
The five-person team includes Merriam and four sophomores, Martin Allen, Jonah Francke, Seth Herz and Mitchell Whalen.
“The thing I’m really excited about is that we have four students competing who are sophomores and freshmen,” said Brooke Pearson, who coaches the academic scholars team. “That means that we’ve got a good group coming through for the future.”
Things aren’t looking as good for the debate team. When Merriam graduates Nowlan will be the sole student debater left at the school.