SPENCER MICHELS: This large, multi-ethnic high school in Union City-- a working class suburb of Oakland, California-- is an unlikely place for a powerhouse team in speech and debate, otherwise known as forensics.
STUDENT: Spare a little change. Your luck might change. I do believe in luck.
SPENCER MICHELS: But James Logan High School has won the state championship for four out of the last six years, and this spring, the speech team was preparing to defend its title.
STUDENT: The moon is larger when it is near the horizon, but as it floats up the sky, it shrinks. This mystery has baffled many.
STUDENT: Act One, Scene One. Lights upon a dreary, depressing, but with middle class aspirations, tenement slum.
SPENCER MICHELS: These days, forensics includes dramatic interpretation of written material, as well as the more traditional debate categories.
STUDENT: By Sam Art Williams.
SPENCER MICHELS: Coach and teacher Tommie Lindsey started this program 13 years ago, and he has become almost legendary in the world of forensics for molding at-risk kids into champions.
STUDENT: Who has everlasting grace in the eyes of God?
TOMMIE LINDSEY: I told you guys yesterday when you make the turn, you're supposed to be talking when you make the turn.
SPENCER MICHELS: Here Pierre Clark and Latoya Johnson practice a ten minute sketch about coming of age.
PIERRE CLARK: I love the land. I love touching crops. When you hold a crop, you can feel the heartbeat of god. I love the land, won't ever leave. And I love how you...
LATOYA JOHNSON: Seafus Junior, put on your Sunday clothes and your new straw hat.
SPENCER MICHELS: Most of Lindsey's students relate to him as a role model. He grew up poor, in Oakland, one of nine children in a single parent family. He started teaching speech at Juvenile Detention Hall before coming to Logan.
PIERRE CLARK: I'll be with you...
LATOYA JOHNSON: I can't grow old and fat, burdened with babies and looking like I'm 90 by the time I'm 30.
PIERRE CLARK: You grew up in that dusty old farmhouse. Who do you think you are?
PIERRE CLARK: My turning point was the first the first tournament, when I took first in the J.V., and that was the greatest feeling in the whole world to me, because I had played football all my life, whatever, and, like, all that didn't add up to nothing until I won that first place trophy. And everybody clapping for me felt good, and after that, I was hooked.
SPENCER MICHELS: When Pierre realized that more forensics students go to college than football players, he quit the football team. In fact, in a school where only 40 percent of the students go on to four-year colleges, about 90 percent of Lindsey's students do. According to Lindsey, there are other benefits to this program as well.
TOMMIE LINDSEY: You'll see a lot of, you know, kids that are hurting, but they are not in a situation where they know how to express, you know, that kind of hurt at this particular time. But then you also look at the program as being kind of a stabilizing force for them.
SPENCER MICHELS: Eighteen-year-old forensics student Robert Hawkins, who grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father, credits Lindsey with helping him rise above his upbringing.
ROBERT HAWKINS: He has brought out everything that I'm feeling. He lets me know that it's okay. You know, if I'm feeling sad, or if I'm depressed about something, it's okay to release that. It's kind of like a cathartic therapy, kind of, but he brings out a lot of what I have going on inside.
SPENCER MICHELS: Because of troubles at home, Robert spent part of his youth living with his grandmother. He is one of 20 grandchildren, and will be the first to graduate from high school. In the fall he'll head to San Francisco State University on a full scholarship, based partly on his forensics success.
ROBERT HAWKINS: My family doesn't really push for that kind of a thing. I mean, I guess they're more pragmatic, Army or just get a job right out of high school. But I didn't... I've never actually pushed for a higher education, but being in forensics, it's the norm to go to college. Everyone's doing it, and if you're not getting good grades and you're not, you know, succeeding in life, then you're really not cool, you're not fitting in. I don't know if that makes sense.
ROBERT HAWKINS: My turn. They don't like being reminded of how low a life can get.
SPENCER MICHELS: In his performance this year, Robert decided to play a panhandler, a role he chose because, he says, he could relate to the character.
ROBERT HAWKINS: This morning this guy asked me, he told me, "why don't you get a job?" Well, I told him, I said, "this is my job. I'm a panhandler by trade."
SPENCER MICHELS: Robert says he's gained great self-confidence through his work in forensics.
D I'JONN GRIZZELL: It's our wad repellant, and this is what it does.
SPENCER MICHELS: For Di'Jonn Grizzell, the confidence he's gained in forensics even helps him at his after-school job selling athletic shoes.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: Look what it does. That's the protected side, that's the unprotected side. So if you didn't have anything on your shoes, they'll get all messed up.
SPENCER MICHELS: He's is hoping his speech skills will help him get into UCLA.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: I have, like, a 3.4 right now, so I guess I'm a pretty good student. And, like, I used to be, like, loud in class, but now, I think I calmed down because of forensics. It shifted my energy in a new source.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: Ain't that enough for me to deal with, hum-a-hum-a-hah? Ain't that enough?
CHERIE MURPHY: Son, wipe your feet.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: I want to dream. I want to be somebody.
SPENCER MICHELS: Di'Jonn and Cherie Murphy have been working on an edgy piece called "Colored Museum."
CHERIE MURPHY: That's a good boy.
D I'JONN GRIZZELL: Boy! I don't want to be nobody's good boy! I want to be my own man.
CHERIE MURPHY: I know, son, I know, and God will show you the way.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: God!? When has your god ever done a damned thing for the black man, hum-a-hum-a-hah?
SPENCER MICHELS: Cherie and Di'Jonn were among the 41 Logan team members who arrived en masse at the state championships in Fresno this spring. As usual, they were all dressed meticulously; the clothing chosen with care and sometimes paid for by Tommie Lindsey.
TOMMIE LINDSEY: You guys have about five minutes, ten minutes to get to your rounds.
SPENCER MICHELS: Unlike many more affluent schools, no parents accompanied this team. And Lindsey insists his students stay at a hotel away from the other schools, so they aren't distracted from the job at hand.
TOMMIE LINDSEY: People see that kind of unity and that's something they want to emulate, and that's where success starts.
SPENCER MICHELS: Students from other schools invariably take notice of the Logan team.
DAVID GARBER: They're intimidating sometimes. I saw earlier a group of 20 of them, walking together, like dressed in all black, and they looked really serious when they're walking in.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even here, all but the final round take place in cluttered classrooms. (Fog horn)
STUDENT: Welcome aboard celebrity slave ship. Hi. I'm Miss Patt and I'll be serving you here in Cabin A. We're going to be crossing the Atlantic at an altitude that's pretty high, so you're going to want to wear your shackles at all times. To put on your shackles, take the right hand and close the metal ring around your left hand, like so. Repeat the actions using your left hand to secure the right. If you have any trouble bonding yourself, I'd be glad to assist.
STUDENT: God created black people, and black people created style.
SPENCER MICHELS: Logan students know that provocative sketches like "The Colored Museum" may not resonate with all the judges, and that could cost points, which upsets Coach Lindsey.
TOMMIE LINDSEY: That's why we have to work much harder. We have to work really much harder than, I think, a lot of the other schools, because your judging pool is mostly, you know, a middle-class group. (Applause )
SPENCER MICHELS: Word of who won, and who lost, who would advance and who was eliminated, was posted in a courtyard. (Squealing kids) For whatever reason, "Colored Museum" was eliminated in the semi-finals. It was a tough blow for Cherie and Di'Jonn, but they'd been trained to try to take it philosophically.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: They didn't understand.
CHERIE MURPHY: That can be the only thing.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: They didn't comprehend.
CHERIE MURPHY: The judges just didn't, they were looking for the wrong things, in my opinion. So... you know, it happens.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: It always happens. It's alright.
CHERIE MURPHY: You move on, take the good with the bad.
SPENCER MICHELS: Di'Jonn and Cherie figured all along the words in their performance would be hard for some people to take.
CHERIE MURPHY: Things that we say are supposed to make you think.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: ..think…
CHERIE MURPHY: They're supposed to make you a little uncomfortable. But that's the good part about it, because we're able to make fun of ourselves, but at the end, we come back and say it's okay to laugh at us sometimes, it's okay to be uncomfortable. That's how it's supposed to be.
DI'JONN GRIZZELL: Because we're here on the inside. It's not about the show, it's about what you have in here, so, you know.
SPOKESPERSON: Now what's that?
SPENCER MICHELS: Among the other team members: Pierre Clark and Latoya Johnson advanced to the finals, but didn't win. Robert Hawkins, last year's champion, also made it to the finals, but came in seventh. The Logan team, last year's all -around winners, failed to repeat. Some students did win, but overall, Lindsey's team came in number three.
STUDENT: I went out the way I wanted to go out. I gave everything I had, and I don't know what happened.
STUDENT: I didn't rise to the occasion this time, but the future holds new things.
STUDENT: What those judges say doesn't take away from what makes us truly great, and that's family, and that's dignity.
STUDENT: I just want to jump up and yell and cry and scream all at the same time, because I love you all. I love James Logan forensics. I love this team, because it's my family. It's my family, right here. (Applause)
SPENCER MICHELS: Now the Logan team is preparing and raising funds for the national forensics competition this summer in Charlotte, North Carolina.