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Richard B. Sodikow, z”l

Earlier this week, I learned that my old high school debate coach, Richard Sodikow, had passed away. After my actual parents, it’s hard for me to think of an adult who had a greater impact on my adolescence, and as a consequence it’s hard for me entirely to fathom his departure from the world. Consider […]

Earlier this week, I learned that my old high school debate coach, Richard Sodikow, had passed away. After my actual parents, it’s hard for me to think of an adult who had a greater impact on my adolescence, and as a consequence it’s hard for me entirely to fathom his departure from the world. Consider this blog post an attempt to do just that as best I can.

Richard – which we never, ever called him, until suddenly, upon graduation, we could; that transition was itself hard enough to fathom – was, like most great teachers, a man too passionate to be properly balanced. Where most of us live compartmentalized lives, with boxes for work, for family, for social and for solitary pursuits, Richard was consumed by one overriding passion: for high school forensics, and for the students who competed under his tutelage. We were his work, but also his family (he never married), and his primary social pursuit. I’m not sure he had much use for solitude.

That tutelage was administered primarily at the Bronx High School of Science, where he founded the debate and speech program in 1969. (Richard himself had graduated from that high school fourteen years previously, and graduated well shy of his 18th birthday, as was the custom in those days with bright hardworking youngsters.) The team rapidly grew to one of the largest and most consistently competitive in the country. His philosophy as coach was strictly meritocratic, on the old City College model. Anyone could join the team, provided they put in a minimum number of hours; there were no tryouts. They could compete at any tournaments that allowed for unlimited enrollment; only when there were limited available slots did he show preference for the “top” competitors on the team. And no one was ever cut because they didn’t perform well enough in competition. It wasn’t his responsibility to tell you whether it was worth your time and effort to compete; it was yours.

He was an inspiring but terrifying teacher of the old school, someone gleefully eager to show you up but never small-souled enough to want to put you down. But you didn’t want to be shown up – and he wouldn’t let you back down. If you made a foolish remark or response to a question, for example, and tried to get out of it by saying you were “just kidding,” Richard would bellow: “KIDDING is an obnoxious operation performed upon a female goat to remove her otherwise unbearable YOUNG!” And he was as awesome as an English teacher as he was as a debate coach. I remember, he began his first lecture on Henry IV part 1 (yes, a high school teacher who gave lectures), by writing on the blackboard the lecture’s title: “Everything You Need To Know.” This turned out to be a chronicle of the Kings and Queens of England from William the Conqueror down through James I – not, you would think, the most auspicious beginning for a bunch of restless high school students, but he had such a commanding voice that we were riveted. We then proceeded to read the play closely, analytically – and also out loud, theatrically. Richard always played the part of Falstaff himself, a character with whom he identified to an alarming degree. My lifelong love of Shakespeare I owe to him, more than to anyone else in my life.

I owe him as well for giving me a proper perspective on my own talents. Debate came very naturally to me, and in plenty of programs I would have been encouraged to believe myself one of the elect – pushed to excel further, of course, but not to question a hierarchy of values according to which my talents were the worthiest of admiration. Richard did, of course, value those same talents very highly – he wouldn’t have been a high school debate coach if he didn’t. But he understood our activity as being embedded in a larger social framework, not as a thing in itself and capable of making a proper estimation of its own worth.

I can best explain what I mean by this by reference to a particular peeve of his: student complaints about judging. Again and again, debaters would come to him complaining that they didn’t deserve to lose a particular round. The judge wasn’t experienced enough, or was biased, or simply didn’t understand their argument. Maybe she was somebody’s mother – somebody who knew nothing about debate. To which Richard invariably would reply, as if issuing the first commandment: “The judge is always right.” It was the cornerstone of his philosophy of debate. Your job, as a debater, was not to make the cleverest or deepest or in-some-sense “truest” arguments, but to convince the judge. If you failed to do that, you lost – and you deserved to.

This was a more radical perspective than it might seem. By the time I was engaged in the activity, high school policy (or “cross-ex”) debate had evolved in a highly technical direction. Arguments followed a rigid formal structure, replete with obscure lingo, and delivered at the speed of a tobacco auctioneer. From the perspective of most of us debaters, the winner of a debate could only be discerned by someone experienced enough to accurately record the flow of argumentation, who could understand the lingo, who knew the arcane rules of the debate world. Richard understood the lingo – he taught it to us. He understood the formal structure – a lot better than any of us young upstarts did. But he was also a lonely voice reminding us that our notions of what mattered were so much idle chatter, because we were not the judges.

There’s been a lot of that kind of chatter lately about the decline of debate, at the high school and college level, into a combination of “meta” argumentation (debate about the rules of debate, rather than about the topic) and the abandonment of structured argument entirely in favor of “personal testimony” (see here for a good example of such chatter). I understand the laments – but I also understand the other side, inasmuch as I remember what debate was like in my day. Our vaunted technical rules were not designed to persuade, nor were they designed to force us to learn about the topic; rather, they honed our skills where we were already strongest, and were designed to make it easier to shift the ground from the official topic to what we would rather talk about – which was usually global thermonuclear war.

Don’t get me wrong: I learned an enormous amount from researching, and an enormous amount from practicing the art of argument. If I were running a program, as Richard did, I would tilt strongly in the direction of traditional practice, and against newfangled approaches that scant the development of those vital skills. But if I, as a debater, had ever lost to someone who, instead of arguing back, recited a poem, or testified about her personal experience, and had complained to Richard about the loss, I know what he would have said. The judge is always right. If I couldn’t convince the judge that my argument was more deserving than my opponent’s poem, then I had failed. And I deserved to lose. Because here’s the thing: out there in the real world, people will employ all sorts of rhetorical strategies to win, and you need to be prepared for all of them, not just the ones you enjoy the most or think are the most intellectually rewarding.

My debt to Richard is not only intellectual. His impact on my emotional development was more complex, but I recognize a substantial debt of gratitude there as well. Like many people who spend their lives among adolescents, Richard had a bit of the arrested adolescent about him. His emotions were all out on the table. When he was depressed – and he could get deeply depressed – he would stare at us across the desk and ask, in all sincerity, “I want to die; why won’t you people let me die?” And he cared more about our lives than, frankly, an adult ought to do – he lived through us. But he did care, and we – at least I – really appreciated knowing that.

I was a pretty hormone-addled teenager, far too embarrassed by that fact to actually talk about it, and far too addled not to have to do something about it. As the James Spader character put it in the movie, “sex, lies and videotape,” “Well, at that time, uh… I… I used to express my feelings nonverbally, and often scared people that were close to me.” I got mocked by Richard for my . . . nonverbal expressions of feeling often enough, in the way that I got mocked by my peers. But I also got accepted, in the way that I got accepted by my peers. And that meant a great deal, at the time. Teenagers go through all kinds of emotional dramas, some ridiculous and some deadly serious. He rode through the rapids with us; for some of us, he’s a major reason we made it safely ashore. I can think of any number of other students, bright kids who were failing out of school, who were struggling with abusive parents, or who had attempted suicide, who found in him a deep well of empathy under that monumental edifice of erudition. But empathy never meant being a willing accomplice to folly. When I think of  some other coaches I know who implicated themselves in their students’ vices, even acting as their procurers, I appreciate all the more how different Richard was, how seriously he took his responsibilities, as a teacher, mentor, and true friend to his students.

That empathy, that caring, took its own toll, sometimes, because teenagers are capable of extraordinary feats of ingratitude. I remember coming to the debate room once and finding a chair had been thrown through the window of the closet. What had happened? I asked another student. Oh, so-and-so failed his final, so Mr. Sodikow threw a chair. I knew the situation: Richard had been tutoring this kid, practically dragging him bodily over the line to pass this class, to no avail. Did he throw the chair at the student in rage, or in an empty classroom in frustration? I assume the latter – the student in question showed no signs of fear or hurt. But even so, it tells you something about how badly we could hurt him, and how ill-equipped he was to absorb that hurt. Kind of like us.

Richard mellowed quite a bit in retirement. He enjoyed his status as a living legend on the debate circuit. But though he was forced to slow down, he never actually rested. That’s part of why it’s so hard to think of him at permanent rest now. If you want to get a sense of the man, the power of his voice and his impish sense of humor, even in his frail latter years, take a look at this speech he gave at Emory University, a bit over a year ago.

For years after his retirement, he continued to keep tabs on us, his former students, far better than we, or at least I, kept tabs on him. That failure of mine is something I will regret until I follow him where he has gone.

May his memory be for a blessing.