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The City Journals

Taylorsville graduating senior speaks on the power of debate

Jun 05, 2019 04:32PM ● By Jet Burnham

Berkeley Perschon after a speech and debate tournament win. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Palimino/Taylorsville HS)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Most of Taylorsville High School knows Berkeley Perschon as “the crazy debate girl.” It is a fitting label for a girl so actively involved in debate and who believes in its extraordinary life-changing power.

“I truly believe debate has the potential to turn individuals into more confident, brighter, smarter and well-informed versions of themselves,” said Perschon.

That’s what it did for her. 

This year, Perschon was named Speech/Theatre/Forensics Sterling Scholar at Taylorsville High School, ranked first in the state in Informative Speaking event and qualified for the national speech and debate competition for the second time.

Yet four years ago, she was a shy freshman, terrified of public speaking.

“It’s crazy to believe that something I was once so scared of has brought so many wonderful paths into my life,” said Perschon. “These last few years have been full of so many ups and downs, and there have been so many tears I’ve shed over this sport, but also oh so many happy moments.”

She started debate at Eisenhower Junior High and continued in high school, gaining confidence and accolades all along the way.

“When it comes down to it, winning a trophy can be a great experience,” she said. “But being able to help make a change and inspire others about issues that you can uniquely bring awareness to? That’s a prize much more valuable than a trophy that you’ll cherish for a lifetime.”

Perschon learned this lesson when she chose to share a personal experience for her speech in the oratory event at the national tournament. She had been recently diagnosed with a hearing impairment and wrote her speech to educate others about hearing aids.

After the first round, she felt like she had performed poorly and was regretting her topic—until a fellow competitor, who was deaf, thanked her for being brave enough to share her message.

“It was in that moment that it all clicked,” said Perschon. “I had been so focused on winning that I lost sight of what was important. I was able to communicate my ideas and inspire others about something I cared about, which was something that felt a million times more rewarding than winning or receiving a trophy.” 

Perschon passes on lessons such as this as a coach for the debate team at Eisenhower Jr High. She said coaching the younger students, as older debaters did for her, is often the highlight of her week. 

“Being able to work with these middle-schoolers over the last three years has given me the chance to see how these kids develop and grow, not only as speakers and debaters but as individuals as well, which has been the most heartwarming experience,” she said.

She believes debate empowers young girls to get through the trials of adolescence.

“Junior high school can be a hard time for anyone, especially girls, as it’s such a big time of transitioning and self-actualization as you come to find out who you are,” she said. 

The six girls on the EJH team this year credit Perschon and their other three student-coaches, (as well as support from Zachary Taylor, their official coach), for their success this year. 

All six girls on the team qualified for state, and Bridgette Bawden, an eighth-grader, won first place in Extemporaneous Speech. Like so many of the other team members, she was shy and unsure of herself when she first joined the team last year, but she soon found she loved it and has grown from her experiences.

The confidence she has gained through debate has helped her to finally put a stop to the bullying she was experiencing and to be more empathic toward others. 

“Debate teaches you different opinions and that we are not all the same,” she said. “Debate increases your knowledge, and you can help change the world.” 

Eighth-grader Sophia Baldridge has found ways to connect with others through knowledge gained researching topics for her speeches.

“Extemporaneous is nice because you learn what’s happening in the world,’ said Sophia.

The speech and debate program has also taught her to value differing viewpoints.

Through the program, Aubrie Moss has learned how to be comfortable being herself—whether she’s making up crazy words or practicing her speeches to a tree—and to not be afraid to show emotions in front of others.

During competition this year, Aubrie, an eighth-grader, became so passionate about her topic of climate change, she started crying as she spoke about the plight of polar bears.

She also learned to adapt quickly, a good skill for the extemporaneous speech event. At state, Aubrie’s Chromebook, which held all her research, stopped working.

 “All I had was a dictionary and a textbook,” she said. “So, I just started unicorning [her code word for making it up].”

EJH Coach Zachary Layton said all the girls on the team this year have come a long way. When he first met eighth-grader Lena Le, he could barely hear what she said. She speaks up now and said she is confident in presenting her thoughts to others.

Bravery is one of lessons students gain from debate.

Freshman Jennifer Org said because of the confidence she gained from debate last year, she joined more sports teams and clubs this year, even taking on leadership roles.

Bailey Burgon, who has anxiety that makes speaking to others—in front of strangers, in an unfamiliar place—very difficult, found an opportunity in debate to educate others.

The six-minute speech she performed for her Oratory competition was about her anxiety. She purposely put herself in uncomfortable situations and noted her reactions and thoughts, which she described in her speech.

“It gave me an opportunity to show people exactly what I go through,” she said.

Bailey’s debate experiences have improved her confidence to talk to people. She has become friends with her teammates, who help her turn her “what if” worry thoughts into “why not” encouraging thoughts.

“I’m so proud of my little girl gang of speakers and debaters,” said Perschon. “I’ll be rooting for them not only in the round but throughout the rest of their lives as well as they go on to accomplish all the wonderful things I know they’ll be able to do.”

The connections debaters make with each other are the best part of debate, said Perschon.

“Call it cliché, but the people I’ve met through debate really are like a second family to me,” she said. “I’ve never felt so close to a group of people.”

Her actual family has watched how debate has shaped her into the young woman she is today.

“Being an educator, I firmly believe that extracurricular activities create stronger connections to school, life-long lessons and friendships,” said her father, Steve Perschon, who is principal of Olympus High School. “Debate is one of the best activities that a student can participate because of the impact it will have on the rest of their life.” 

THS debate coach Jennifer Palomino said Perschon’s impact will be felt even after she graduates.

“We’ve almost doubled in size from what we were last year,” said Palomino. “A lot of it has been because of Berkeley’s efforts. She’s constantly trying to recruit, trying to share what debate means for her—they find that passion she has for debate intriguing.”

Perschon reflected how debate has permanently changed the course of her life and how it can change the lives of others and even the world.

“Debate is so much more than a club,” she said. “It’s an experience that will continuously teach you and open up so many possibilities and doors for you if you let it. It teaches you and helps you form your own ideas and opinions about issues in our world today. It gives ordinary high school kids an outlet to share their voice about issues they feel matter in a world where people tell us we can’t make a difference simply because we are young.”