The five teenagers sit around the kitchen table of a condo in Seattle’s culture-rich, rich-rich Capitol Hill, preparing for tomorrow’s debate tournament. Purportedly. Instead, their table has become a demolition derby of interrupted conversations about anything but the tournament. Snack debris — dried fruit, pistachio shells, a toppled-over skinny can of Perrier — outnumber the five laptops, barely touched.
On a normal night, Molly, one of the two girls present, might try to keep everyone on track. There’s a running joke in the group that if everyone were like her, the world would be a better place — which sounds like a compliment, until you hear a 15-year-old girl say it. But tonight she’s playing against her type, annoyed with her type. At school that day, she was assigned a skit with a partner in Chinese class. Molly and her partner decided to trade personas: Molly would pretend to enjoy partying, and the other girl would pretend to enjoy studying. Molly begins complaining about the skit to the group, but she doesn’t get very far. No single topic gets far. One puts forward a thought only to have it smashed into by another’s.
They gossip. “Did you hear she got into Barnard, early admission?” They swap jokes and insults. “What do you hear more in a day,” the other girl in the group asks one of the boys — the captain of this demolition derby, a 14-year-old prone to tickling, poking, and hanging off his friends — “your name, or people telling you to shut up?” They talk about homework. One of their classes has a salon coming up, in which they have to assume the roles of famous philosophers and respond to modern issues. One of the boys was assigned to play Ayn Rand, and he doesn’t hate it. The others do.
“Ayn Rand is more reasonable than all of them,” the boy says, and the crowd goes wild. "Do you even understand capitalism?" “Capitalism encourages exploitation of the worker—" “No, the problem with capitalism is..."
Later, they halt the derby to watch a video only half of them have seen: Ted Cruz’s awkward campaign commercial outtakes. This YouTube cringe-hole drags them to Rick Santorum’s 2012 “Game On” music video. Molly knows every word — it is her “Friday.” She mouths along while pulling her gray Patagonia fleece over her head, mussing her strawberry-and-straw bob.
Laughing at the Republican presidential candidates, of course, ignites one of Molly’s key interests: talking about Bernie Sanders, whose stickered name stretches across the back of her laptop. Her enthusiasm for the Vermont Democrat becomes an accidental speech — after nearly an hour of chaos, there’s finally an opening for one — and she’s immediately called out for it.
“Ugh, stop sounding like Debate Molly.”
Molly smiles, choosing, as she often does, to absorb the slight as a compliment. “I am Debate Molly."
It’s been almost a month since Molly got her braces off, and it may be the best thing to happen to her debate career, or so she says the next afternoon, folded into the leather seat of a school bus inching down an interstate toward Auburn, Washington. Her diction unburdened from metal and saliva slush, Molly speaks quickly and clearly and smiles often. She considers her presentation her greatest debate strength. (Her weaknesses, she says: saying “you know” too much; needlessly complicating her sentences midway through them.)
This mid-December high school speech and debate tournament, like most, runs for two days. Molly competes in public forum debate — a six-round debate about one issue. The issue changes every month; at the Auburn tournament, the question was whether standardized testing was “beneficial to K–12 education in the United States.”
The 45-minute bus ride to the high school in Auburn was another chance to prep — to read over prepared arguments, or to catch up on recent news surrounding Common Core and No Child Left Behind, or to get on the same page as your debate partner. For Molly and her partner, this basically meant spending five minutes on their material and 40 idly talking and catching up on all the hits: Serial, All Things Considered, Radiolab. If she has her earbuds in, Molly says, she’s listening to a podcast. She doesn’t feel remotely drawn to pop music, or the fandom inspired in her peer group by pop musicians: “I feel like it’d just kind of be painful to get so attached to someone you can never really be close with. I mean, I only get obsessed with politicians.” Her Bieber is Bernie, or Washington's Gov. Jay Inslee, or Hillary Clinton (whom she emphasizes she likes and looks up to, despite supporting Sanders for president).
Molly is slightly more invested in television, via Netflix, which she uses to binge-watch Gilmore Girls — a show that went off the air when she was 8. It’s clear why: Gilmore Girls birthed the patron saint of type-A aspiring Ivy Leaguers.
“Rory Gilmore,” Molly says. “I know she’s a fictional character and no one is that perfect ... No one has guys fighting over them and only reads but can eat all this junk food and also somehow has time to watch all these movies with her mom and has this perfect mother-and-daughter relationship and gets perfect grades and goes to Yale and gets into all the Ivy Leagues.”
And yet Molly aspires to be Gilmore incarnate, even though Molly knows that most people who try to be like Rory Gilmore often end up more like her foil Paris Geller, recklessly driving toward perfection with a wild, friend-repelling look in their eyes.
Molly has gone to Explo summer school at Wellesley and Yale and debate camp at Harvard, and she wants to attend a similarly elite school after graduation. She’s never earned a grade below A-, and she just founded her school’s math club. Friends tease her for her dedication to organization. But she’s the first to admit she's not the easiest to work with in group projects. She’s controlling, she says; she’ll do the whole assignment just to make sure everyone’s work is done the way she wants it done. If she came home with a B, Molly predicts, her parents wouldn’t care at all — but they’d have to console her. “They’d know that I’d be so disappointed in myself — a B is like the worst thing. But it's not. But it feels like it is.”
“I think I have internal motivations where I just want to be the best that I can be, but also, somewhere, like, deep down, there’s this idea that I just want to please everyone,” she says. “I’ve just always been that way.”
When Molly was in elementary school — specifically a private, nontraditional, former university lab elementary school — her parents watched the news a lot, and Molly decided she wanted to be a news anchor. But then she thought: “Well, news anchors just talk about what other people are doing.”
She became more drawn to the people doing the doing. The concept of “making change” stuck with her like leftover glue between her fingers, until it became clearer to the fourth-grader: politics.
“If I like politics so much, and if I just want to talk about politics all the time, why don’t I just be a politician? And so then of course my mind went straight to, Oh, I'll just be the president.”
Molly’s held on to the idea ever since — except for a brief moment in middle school when she thought she should have a more realistic goal and decided she wanted to be a lawyer. “But now I'm kind of like, I’m just gonna shoot for the stars.” Her election year will "most likely be in 2048," she says, when she's "old enough to have experience but young enough to seem fresh."
She still hedges her ambitions, though, saying she’s “OK” with not reaching the highest office in the land. “It’s not like that’s the only reason I want to be a politician. I feel like when you say, ‘I want to be the president,’ especially as a young person, that sounds like ‘I want the power of being the president.’ But that’s not it for me. I just want to have the biggest impact that I can on the political process.”
Her parents found the idea of President Molly cute when she was younger, Molly says, but they’ve never pushed her toward politics. Mostly they just hated the idea of her becoming a lawyer.
Molly’s parents met as international relations graduate students at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Jobless after graduation, they couldn’t decide whose hometown to move back to, so they chose neither. They married and moved to Hong Kong. They had Molly there, and another daughter two years later. But the family — especially the newborn — began suffering from asthma as a result of pollution. They left Hong Kong for Tokyo for a year, then moved to Seattle when Molly was 5. Molly’s mother now works in executive communications for Microsoft; Molly’s father is the COO of a sports startup, working to popularize rugby in the U.S. Molly’s parents are both liberal, she says, but she’s never felt pressure from them to adopt their beliefs.
“I remember asking them a lot, ‘Should I be a Democrat like you guys? Should I be?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, you have to find that out for yourself.’”
Molly recognizes this as one of many emotional and financial privileges she’s had in her life — there’s also the new car and generous allowance. These things can make her feel uncomfortable, she says. (“Not in a ‘I don’t want it’ way. In a ‘Other kids don’t get this, so why should I?’ way.”) Her whole life she’s gone to private institutions — the kind of schools where she’s always referred to teachers by their first names, and where tuition exceeds many entry-level incomes.
But she says she wouldn’t be “the way that I am right now if I hadn’t gone to these schools" — and she knows it "sucks because some kids don't get a choice between the traditional and experimental because of finances." She’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had so far. But like her own overachieving version of FOMO, she works insatiably hard in school now “to be able to have every opportunity possible.”
Giggling, staring, some pointing: School just ended in Auburn, and students there watch as troops of kids in business clothes carry enormous plastic tubs into their cafeteria. There are 43 duos competing at this tournament in public forum debate, or PFD. Molly and her partner, Golda, will debate three times today in random matches and at least three times tomorrow, when they’ll be matched with partnerships who received similar scores on day one, until a bracket is formed.
Debaters say the worst part of these events is waiting for new postings — a list pasted to a communal wall before each round, detailing which teams are competing against each other and in which classroom with which judge. Each duo has to end its round before this list can be created and a new round begins, which leaves a lot of downtime. On the first day of a two-day tournament, debate teams can end up camped out in these cafeterias until 11 p.m. (The second-worst part: showing up early the next morning.)
At the same time, postings are when debaters come to life. In oversize suits and ties and heels, they race from their empty pizza boxes and Red Bull cans toward the posted lists. There are false alarms, too, but even when that happens, the jumpy nervousness is contagious. When it’s time for them to run, Molly and Golda pull their binders and legal pads together, and Molly realizes that Golda has put the pro argument in a red folder and the con argument in a green folder, just to mess with Molly. It works.
Another piece of common knowledge in the speech and debate world: Close friends don’t work well as debate partners. Molly and Golda are an exception. The two met in sixth grade, at a picnic for families new to their school, but they didn’t become BFFs until eighth grade. They became debate partners the next year, which wasn't easy at first, Golda says.
“It's very dependent on being able to give feedback and criticism in a way that isn't really mean, but also so you feel like you're heard,” Golda says. “And it can feel really awful. That was hard.”
“I wouldn’t say hard,” Molly says, “but it was weird at first.”
“It's been good this year,” Golda clarifies. “I was talking to my parents about it, and it’s almost like a marriage, where we both have roles. I'm always in charge of printing and organizing, but she edits all my cases, and I make the fact sheets.”
“I bring pens and we always use my phone to time. We have a system," Molly says. "We’ve learned how to communicate in a way that’s not detrimental to our friendship.”
“And we're both narcissistic enough to be able to receive feedback and not get, like, totally crushed by it,” Golda says. “I can tell her that I thought her summary was weak and she is like, ‘OK.’”
“I mean, it was weak, but I’m an excellent speaker, so it is OK.”
“I think I was worried in the beginning that you would resent having me as a partner because you wanted a better person. When you won a speaker award the first time we did a tournament—”
“I could tell you were disappointed.”
“I was so sad,” Golda says. Her strength lies more in deploying logic and responding to arguments on the spot than presentation. But at their best, Molly and Golda fill in each other’s gaps. During debates, when it’s the other team’s turn to speak, Molly and Golda write and point at each other’s notes, furiously enough to move quickly, subtly enough to maintain decorum. Molly lands sentences like she’s setting them down on a tablescape, perfect posture and all. She may be less certain in crossfire, but that’s when Golda brings a raw energy, eyes darting around the room as she rushes to get her words out. Together they work like there's nothing more important than what's happening in their fluorescent-lit portable classroom, with its carpet littered with ruled-paper confetti and motivational posters fraying at the edges. (“Life is about making mistakes and learning from them.”)
After a round, Golda reminds Molly to stop pronouncing “gauges” like “gaw-jes.” Molly reminds her to stop using the phrase “negative benefit.” Life is about making mistakes and learning from them.
The downtime can be excruciating, though, even when it’s spent with friends. Sometimes there are things to do, like homework. At the last tournament, they watched one of the Democratic presidential debates live. But sometimes there’s nothing to do, and sometimes there’s a heavy stench coming from the next table, where another group of debaters has abandoned their mostly eaten, now-congealing Chinese takeout. Molly — a very clean person — strongly resists the impulse to clean up the mess, deciding instead to finish the complaint she began airing the night before at the derailed prep session, about the class skit with the punchline hinging on her straitlaced reputation.
The issue here is that Molly likes being known and talked about, but she wishes she had more control over how people talked about her.
“I have a certain reputation that has boxed me in in some ways,” she says. “That I’m so on one end of the spectrum that I would never do anything rebellious or fun or anything like that. And it’s not like I go to parties and stuff like that … But it’s not like I’m totally against people doing that. I mean, whatever, if that’s your thing. It just makes me happy to hang out with Golda and clean my room and write my debate cases, and I feel like that’s OK, but it's developed to this point that people think of me at school in a way that just makes me seem so boring. And I don't think I'm boring, I just think I'm interesting in ways that I’m not supposed to be at this age.”
Those ways include donating twice to Bernie Sanders’ campaign (a total of $30), or spending her weekends going to organizing meetings or making phone-bank calls to persuade voters as a Sanders volunteer. Molly feels a responsibility to do both things, since she can’t yet vote. (Though of course when she can vote, she’ll still volunteer, she says; Molly is not one for bare minimums.)
Molly’s pro-Sanders pitch is as follows: “The way that he wants our country to work is how our country is supposed to work, because, you know, what we learn in history class — here's the American government — they never talk about how if a corporation wants to send a bunch of lobbyists to totally change what's going on, then that's fine, and that they can also just buy campaigns. That's not really part of the story. But I feel like it really either needs to be made clear that that's happening, or ideally we can get rid of that and actually have the democracy that we're supposed to have. Because checks and balances seems like such a great system, until you factor in big money.”
The difference between Molly and many of Sanders’ supporters, though, is that the latter are generally anti-politician. To them, Sanders is the exception to the rule that politicians are inherently corrupt. How does this align with Molly’s desire to become a politician?
“That's all the more reason to do it,” she says. “Because a lot of that bad reputation is often true, so if I can kind of get involved and change that and be better, I mean, so what if people eventually think badly of me?”
“I don’t need to be liked by everyone. I'm not. I think that’s very clear. I have a strong personality and I have strong opinions and some people aren’t going to like or accept that, but that’s understandable. I’m not the person for everyone.”
Molly's skin is thick but not impenetrable. She and her friends often tease each other, but sometimes a joke goes too far, and sometimes she gets hurt, no matter how much she knows she's not the person for everyone.
Molly has run for two student political offices and lost. In eighth grade, she fell short of becoming class speaker. In ninth grade, the class representative election had four open spots, and there were only five candidates. Her friends tell her she lost these elections because she took them too seriously — that she wasn’t silly enough, which is how everyone votes in high school. Molly argues that her peers just didn’t understand her humor. Either way, the losses have been discouraging. She hopes the real world is not so averse to politicians who take their jobs seriously.
Other than debate, Molly participates in youth legislature, a statewide YMCA-operated program in which students run a model state government. This spring, she’ll apply to be in the governor’s cabinet — a position that is picked by the governor, a fellow student, who was once saved by Molly when her skirt tore and Molly, her sewing kit on her at all times, mended it for her. Next year, Molly wants to be the governor herself.
As she’s laying out her election plan, the cafeteria fills up again with debaters who just finished their rounds. Behind her, one of her teammates uses a Snapchat filter to play videos of himself saying words backward. He shows one to Molly — it’s him saying “senip.”
A few months ago, some boys on Molly’s team — some of Molly’s best friends — created a dudes-only Instagram account. Molly wasn’t amused. There are only five girls on her team and more than 20 boys.
“They’re like, ‘It’s satirical sexism, so it’s OK,’” she says. “But it leaves us out. It’s not OK.” When she brings it up to them, she’s treated like “Molly the crazy feminist,” she says. “No, I’m just pointing out your account is ridiculous.”
The debate world at large is male-dominated; the Instagram account is not the first time she’s sensed sexism within it.
“Girls will get called 'hun' or 'sweetie' during rounds, or treated weirdly by the judge. We’ve had judges tell us — this has happened a few times, and they didn’t do this for our male opponents — 'Wow, you girls just look so nice dressed up like that. It must be so exciting to go dress up for debates.’ I’m like, ‘It’s also really exciting to spend hours preparing our cases and do work and lead the debate team!’ But they’re our judges, so you can’t say anything.”
At debate camp this summer, Molly heard about a duo on the East Coast that strategically hits on girls from opposing teams to make them feel uncomfortable before rounds. Even when it doesn’t seem strategic, tournament flirting is commonplace — on the first day of the Auburn competition, Molly was pulling two chairs apart when a guy from another team crossed the room to help her, then suavely introduced himself.
“I can’t help but feel like that sort of thing is people trying to psych me out, you know. And when I went and sat down, all my friends were like, ‘Oh, he was totally flirting with you.’ I had no sense of that. And maybe that's just me having no social senses. I can’t pick up on that sort of thing. But I don’t know, I didn’t see it.”
Have the debaters mentioned how terrible the downtime is? Because it’s bad — just hours upon hours of waiting around in a school that isn’t yours. At one point Molly and one of her teammates begin playing ninja, the playground game, in a busy hallway while other debaters who’d changed into their pajamas aggressively side-eye them. An hour later, Molly lies on cold white tile and stares at the ceiling while the group talks about places they’d go if money was no question. “Croatia,” says Molly's friend Aidan, who first posed the question. “It’s beautiful. I’ve been there before.” “Anywhere I could be alone, like Tuscany, among the trees,” Golda says. Molly chimes in, breaking the rules with time travel: “Washington, D.C., on my inauguration day.”
Molly and Golda were positive that day one of the tournament went badly, especially after a painful round against a pair of senior girls — mature, charismatic, polished, tough girls who giggled throughout Molly and Golda’s rebuttals. That round's crossfire segment was a series of interruptions and cruel smiles and biting why-don’t-you-let-me-finishes.
But midway through the next day, Molly and Golda were downright hopeless, convinced they'd flatlined. It wasn’t until their sixth and final round that their moods turned. For a half hour, they'd stood outside a portable classroom — it was 46 degrees, windy, and raining, with only about two inches of roof to cover them — waiting for the judge to show up. (Rules dictate that debaters must wait for judges before entering a classroom.) But when the judge arrived, Molly and Golda were confused. They recognized him from a previous round, and having the same judge twice before quarterfinals was against policy. A tournament organizer appeared, explaining that though it hadn’t been announced, the girls had made it to quarterfinals.
They were ecstatic. They’d never made it this far as varsity debaters, and they were convinced they were doing terribly. They had only a few seconds to celebrate, though — their judge was still sitting right in front of them. They played it cool, which just looked like a lot of wobbling and bugging eyes and quiet, toothy smiles pointed toward the ground.
When it finally began, the round didn’t go well. Molly and Golda were up against another tough senior, a confident, tall-haired, pen-twirling debater, though his normal partner was off touring colleges. When they tripped on their words, the senior rolled his eyes. After the round, Molly and Golda walked in a tense silence, then argued a bit over Golda’s decision not to respond to one of the senior’s points, then swiftly dropped it. They remembered to be happy they even made it to quarterfinals.
Molly and Golda were done debating in this tournament, but the suspense continued. According to their coach, if they were recognized with awards at the ceremony later that night for getting to quarterfinals, it meant they’d have a state bid, or a chance to compete in the statewide competition at the end of the year. For them it was the next best thing to winning. And their coach estimated they had a 50-50 chance.
Hours later, the awards ceremony was the light at the end of their long two days, but Molly and Golda couldn't see it. They were too nervous. When their names were finally called to come collect their quarterfinal trophies — their state bids secured — they hugged and ran and jumped, free of any judges to keep cool in front of.
“We felt like our hard work had finally paid off, and it had proven that the hard work was enough and that we were good enough to actually get places in this thing that we worked so hard at,” Molly says.
Their celebration was clouded by some technicalities. On the bus ride home, their coach told Molly and Golda that it turned out their bids didn’t automatically mean they'd go to state. Each school can send only two PFD partnerships to state, and four partnerships on Molly’s team now qualify. Molly and Golda must keep collecting bids, going to as many tournaments as possible. It sucks, Molly says, to be competing against her own teammates, but she and Golda are optimistic — not only about going to state, but also that they’re doing so well as sophomores. They're not even the tough seniors yet.
But by the next night, over chicken pho — no mix-ins for Molly — most of the excitement has left her. The adrenaline is gone, replaced with a sort of blasé introspection. In the short term, Molly says, she can acknowledge her successes and be enthusiastic about them and proud of herself.
“But then in the long term, I tend to convince myself that I don’t deserve it," she says. "That I’ve somehow faked my way into getting there, and that’s all because of external factors that I’ve been successful.”
She knows it’s not true, she says. “But it’s what I tell myself all the time. I wish I didn’t do that, of course." When they come to her, Molly wraps these insecurities in the belief that “everyone has things they want to change about themselves, and it’s OK to want to change.” Growing up, to her, is a self-improvement effort that never, ever ends.
“No one is the person they want to be for the rest of their life, especially at age 16, and that’s not a bad thing. I bet no one at age 30 is the person they want to be forever, or at 50 or 60 or whatever," Molly says, making her case.
“I feel like we always say, ‘Oh, when you're a teenager, that's when you figure yourself out.’ But no one figures themselves out. That's not a thing. I think you start the process of finding out what your deal is, but that process never ends. It just begins and then goes on ... We can always be better in some way, and that's not a problem. That just is.”