Reflecting on Debate - 1971 to 2019

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 - By: Wade Davis, 1971

The following is a letter from Brentwood Alumni Wade Davis (Class of 1971), former Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, a Member of the Order of Canada, Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia and author of 23 books. Wade and his debate teammate, Graham Vink (Class of 1971), were BC Provincial Debate Champions in 1971. Last month Jaylyn B, Allard ‘19 and Amelia H, Allard 20 regained that title and also earned a spot at Canadian National High School Debate Tournament. In the photo above, Mr Bunch is in the centre with Wade house right, and Graham house left.

The news of the wonderful success of the debating team reached me while I was in Scotland on a lecture tour for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. I am thrilled for Brentwood, and especially pleased that young women emerged as the champions. Naturally I recalled the excitement Graham Vink and I felt so many years ago, the pride we shared with the entire team. But I also felt enormous gratitude to those who honed our skills, the late Gil Bunch in particular. I have one memory that I'm almost certain is false, but I will share it anyway, for if this did not happen on the stage, it most assuredly unfolded in my imagination. 

As if it was yesterday I recall standing in the wings, waiting for Mr. Bunch to bellow a noun from the back of the hall. As soon as you heard the word, which could be anything, you had to slowly walk to the podium at centre stage and deliver a five minute address on the topic. If you hesitated or uttered a single um or ah, you went to the back of the line and had to begin again. The exercise was brilliant, for it honed your wits and memory to the point that your mind detached from your mouth, free to forge a new thought, to ready a clever phrase, even while your mouth did the immediate work. One learned to speak in complete paragraphs, to fill moments of hesitation with lyrical flourishes, to be comfortable with silence and free space, interludes that only accentuated the power of the narrative.

Mr. Bunch celebrated public speaking as performance, a form of theatre, an art form as ancient as the Greeks and as contemporary as Broadway. Polemics are never persuasive. Politicians follow but rarely lead. But storytellers change the world, and they do so through language, the power of narrative, the magic of the spoken word. The training I had a Brentwood as a debater and a speaker literally gave me as a boy the wings to fly. Last week before leaving for Aberdeen, I spoke to sold-out theatres in Santa Fe and Boca Raton, having just returned from a month in Antarctica serving as a speaker on a ship that brought us within metres of the rocks at Point Wild on Elephant Island where Shackleton's men clung to life for four months, with no certainty of rescue.

This week I will deliver keynotes in Vancouver and Red Deer, before flying off to do more the same in China and Japan. Thanks to Brentwood, I have literally been able to create a career, talking my way around the world.

Wade Davis, 1971

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