Jackson student makes history in nationwide speech contest
Swimming club, jazz band, and student government are just a few of the things that occupy 15-year-old Hart Jefferson’s free time when he’s not doing homework or helping in his church.
Not to mention becoming the first Murrah High School student to qualify for a nationwide big issues debate competition.
The National Speech and Debate Association’s Big Questions competition, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, focuses on the discussion of complex ideals across science, philosophy and religion. Jefferson was just a freshman when he entered the June competition.
Since 2016, more than 100,000 middle and high school students across the United States have taken part in the debate style.
Jefferson said being Murrah’s second freshman to qualify for the national tournament wasn’t something he expected, but he’s excited about what it could mean for students at the to come up.
“I’m not the first student to go to national championships, but I’m the first to qualify for this debate, so I guess that opens more doors for people in this type of debate,” he said. declared.
The COVID-19 pandemic made the whole experience possible for Jefferson. When schools were forced to go virtual, many extracurricular activities also had to adapt. With few options, Jefferson said he turned to the debate.
“I just wanted something to do,” he said. “But … over the course of the year, I got really interested in it, and I spent a lot of time on it.”
Jefferson’s work paid off when he qualified to represent Mississippi on the national stage. He didn’t win his competition in June, but still thinks the experience has been invaluable.
“Hard work really pays off,” he said. “The feeling of going into a trick with all your stuff packed and going against other people… you don’t really get that with any other type of activity.”
‘If you like to argue this is the place for you’
Hart’s mother Janelle Jefferson said Murrah High School is one of the few schools in the Jackson District that has a functioning high school debate club. Operating during the pandemic has been difficult, but the awards her son and his teammates were able to earn prove that Jackson’s children are still working, she said.
“We had to find space for them, and it’s a team (from Jackson Public Schools), so we have kids from all over town,” she said. “Coordination is difficult, but it is also a testament to the talent we have in the district. “
Hart Jefferson said few black students participate in the debate, which sometimes makes him feel put on the spot or singled out by the judges.
“There are times when I feel like the judges might look at my arguments harder and (there are) times when I think I should have placed myself higher,” he said. .
Janelle Jefferson said that while Murrah’s debate team is diverse, the same can’t be said of some of the other teams on the Tour.
“Few of our students of color are really participating,” she said. “There have been competitions where he has been the only black student to compete.”
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Hart Jefferson said not seeing many other students who look like him hasn’t discouraged his competitive spirit and that he hopes to qualify in future competitions. Jefferson said he hopes his success inspires others to form or join debate clubs.
“If you like an argument this is the place for you,” he said. “If you like to talk, if you like to write … or if you like philosophy or something like that, this is something that you will really enjoy.”