Debating was part of Rebecca Pelletier’s life even before she could actually form sentences, let alone an argument. As a tot, she wandered debate tournaments while her father, Joe Pelletier, coached. In middle school, she spearheaded the formation of Bangor’s first team for her age group. Now a college sophomore, Rebecca is studying at St. Anselm in New Hampshire on a debate scholarship and earning national recognition.

The father and daughter pair, once coach and student, speak quickly, share inside jokes and text or call each other after competitions to “talk shop.” Joe’s wife and Rebecca’s mother, Ellen Pelletier, and their son Patrick Pelletier, 24, also have been involved in speech and debate, but not as heavily as Joe and Rebecca. Between the two of them, they have more than 30 years of debating, coaching and involvement in the debate community in Maine.

“I definitely grew up helping out at tournaments, coaching rounds, and that had a big influence on me,” Rebecca, 20, said. “Getting involved was something that I just came into very naturally, it was all around me.”

A family affair

Joe started coaching debate at Bangor High School in 1990, the same year he accepted a position there teaching history. He had participated in speech and debate while attending Hermon High School, and during his job interview, he said he was willing to coach debate.

Each year, Bangor hosts a tournament for 20-25 schools, and as soon as Rebecca was old enough to walk, she would visit. As she got older, her involvement increased, and she went on to teach others how to judge rounds, a complex process of matching up participants so they are arguing against someone of equal talent.

One weekend when Rebecca was in middle school, Joe was scheduled to miss one of her cheerleading competitions in order to judge debate. But, his daughter made him a deal. If he and another debate coach helped her start a middle school team, she’d be more than OK with him missing the tournament. They shook, and Bangor’s first middle school team started at All Saints Catholic School.

The debate season runs from October through February with pre-season practice and mock debates starting in September. Almost every Saturday when their children were competing, the Pelletier family, including Ellen and Patrick, would be off to tournaments bright and early.

“We are somewhere basically every weekend unless there’s a holiday. … We go all over Maine,” Joe said. “There was one year in high school when Patrick was a senior and Becca was a freshman that all four of us would be out the door by 5:30 or 5:45 a.m. for a bus ride down to southern Maine.”

Ellen would judge speech events, which occur alongside debates at tournaments, and Patrick competed in congressional debates. Rebecca would argue in “Lincoln-Douglas” policy debates, and Joe would coach and offer encouragement as both a mentor and father.

“My dad and I are totally close,” Rebecca said. “In high school he was, of course, there all the time, and we’d talk everything out, but he was always able to fill both roles as a coach and a parent simultaneously.”

Since Rebecca is competing all over the country, Joe doesn’t get to see her debate as often as he would like. However, he still sends her text messages and calls her after to see how things went.

“We talk about everything that happened, things that worked, funny things, things that nondebate people would think were really weird and not funny at all,” she said. “It’s really special that we share this in common, and we really can talk about it for hours.”

A list of successes

Since accepting a scholarship to St. Anselm her senior year of high school, Rebecca has competed in policy debates across the country. During the debates, she and another competitor advocate for or against a resolution that typically calls for policy change by the United States federal government. For example, she recently debated a resolution along the lines of “The U.S. federal government should increase development of resources like water, energy or minerals.” Debaters must come up with a plan that will execute something under that resolution and create change.

“For me, it’s a process of thinking and problem solving,” she said. “When you find the loophole that means you can win the case, it’s very gratifying. There’s a lot of pressure, you have 40 minutes to prove you’re right and present a more convincing case to your opponents.”

Rebecca has done well this year, earning recognition last season as the second place speaker in Lincoln-Douglas policy debate at a tournament at Otterbein University in Ohio. Debating in college is a dream come true she said.

“I get to travel, do what I love and get paid to do it,” she said referencing her scholarship.

Joe’s team also has seen great success, and he plans on taking several students to a prestigious tournament in Boston this spring. He enjoys imparting not only knowledge on his students but seeing them grow individually as his daughter did.

“They’re learning how to become good communicators, about problem solving and how to look at an issue from multiple points of view,” he said. “They have to be prepared to argue both sides of an issue, so even if they don’t agree with one side or the other, they can at least think about and reason through the arguments their opponents would be making.”

Future plans

Ever the enthusiast, Rebecca is looking forward to her next three years at St. Anselm and the debate team. She hopes to spend the time improving her skills as a competitor and learning about teaching those skills to others.

She took a year off last year to volunteer with Americorps, but she is back at school this year pursuing a double major of English and secondary education. She plans to graduate in 2017, and she hopes to teach middle school English and coach debate.

“I’d like to see debate programs expanding to all levels of students, and I want to stay involved in this community,” Rebecca said.

But for now, she’s focused on herself and mastering her knowledge and rapid firing of arguments.

“I’m always looking to improve and expand my skills and resources,” she said.

As for Joe, he’s enjoyed seeing his daughter grow and mature.

“Her confidence has really changed and blossomed this year,” he said. “She’s become much more self-aware. She’s grown up a lot, and I don’t think I would’ve seen that had she not done debate.”

Natalie Feulner

Natalie Feulner is a journalist and “semi-crunchy” cloth diapering momma to a rambunctious toddler named after a county in California. She drinks too much tea and loves to climb rocks but not at the...