Alex Zhao loves to argue.
No, listen. He really loves to argue.
So much so that his parents made him promise that if he wanted to go on arguing, he’d have to maintain straight As.
On that, they got no argument. Their eldest son was happy to keep up his end of the bargain so he could continue to debate.
Zhao, a junior, is the first All-American debater in La Cañada High School history, the star of an ever-expanding and annually improving speech and debate team that in its sixth year sent a record seven students to the state championship. This year, the team also had three students, Alex included, qualify for national speech and debate championship events.
Last weekend, for the second consecutive year, Zhao was one of only 75 students in the country to compete in the Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky. Zhao qualified easily by earning “bids” at seven of the elite tournaments he attended. He needed only two such bids.
In Kentucky, Zhao won four debates, lost three and therefore just missed “breaking” to the elimination round.
“I didn’t break, but I’m happy to have had a positive record and look forward to another year,” Zhao wrote in an email when he returned.
This latest elite-level debate was another healthy dose of experience for Zhao, who this season climbed to 22nd in a national ranking gauging those competing in Lincoln Douglas-style, a one-on-one format named for the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.
Count on Zhao, 16, to share all that he learned in Kentucky with his teammates.
“He actually loves to run practice,” said Susan Moore, LCHS speech and debate team coach. “He’s very good about sharing his knowledge with the team.
Said fellow junior Chris Morillo: “He literally gives us PowerPoint presentations.”
Morillo is National Speech and Debate Tournament-bound, along with senior Sahil Nandwani. At that event next month in Salt Lake City, Morillo will participate in dramatic interpretation, a style of speech that calls for a 10-minute recital akin to a one-man show.
“It’s about getting to find the right pieces, and it’s a great emotional outlet,” said Morillo, who this year did a piece titled “I Might Be Edgar Allen Poe,” which required him to scream on stage, an experience he said he relished.
Nandwani will compete in World Schools Debate, a challenging form that combines the concepts of prepared topics with impromptu topics.
Zhao’s specialty, Lincoln-Douglas, is heavy on logic, ethics and philosophy — all characteristics that attracted him as a neophyte 9th-grader. Every two months, the young debaters get a topic to research and think about philosophically — from both sides — with the issues ranging from minimum wage to medical rights of adolescents to handgun ownership.
On the issue of handguns, say, when Zhao was assigned to argue in opposition, “I talked about how the instances of defense were rare, and I talked about how handguns are the cause of accidental deaths, for example, if someone is not storing it properly. Also, handguns are used disproportionately in drug crimes.”
And when he was asked to argue in favor, he’d bring up “a right to self-defense, that there’s a duty for us to allow that freedom, and even if it’s not effective, in principle, the right to self-defense is still a good idea. I also talked about how banning handguns will only encourage criminals to switch to other weapons, such as sawed-off shotguns or other rifles.”
And what does all that deep contemplation about such topical issues do for a young thinker such as Zhao?
“Sometimes it changes my mind and opens me up to new ideas,” he said. “And, often, it actually makes me less confident about what I thought before, because you have to research both sides equally.”
Zhao’s father, Jian, has grown to appreciate his son’s passion, which he said has strengthened his bond with Alex, who’s also a violinist and a member of a weekly a hiking club from the school.
“At a young age, his mother spent more time with him because I was at work,” Jian said. “So now I’ve really enjoyed building a good relationship with him. We travel a lot together and it’s been really valuable. And, sometimes, he discusses new strategies and gets my opinions, and I appreciate it.”
Jian Zhao has even judged a handful of contests, though he’ll tell you Alex has a much deeper understanding of the sport: “When you reach a certain level, everything is about strategy. You have a lot of weapons in your pocket and [you have to know] how to combine them for specific opponents, or sometimes you need to adapt to the judges.”
Preparing to launch such refined arguments takes a lot of work: after school on Fridays with the team and on his own researching issues or watching YouTube videos of other debaters.
All while, of course, keeping up that GPA.
Alex Zhao loves to argue.