Clemens Legacy Cannot Be Debated

Olivia Santos, Staff

At Lake Highland Preparatory School, there are more extracurricular activities than one can count on two hands. LHPS is called the School of Opportunity, after all. But one especially popular extracurricular these days seems to be Speech and Debate, with dozens of students participating in the after-school activity. There are a few divisions in Speech and Debate: speech itself with many events and debate with Lincoln-Douglas, Public Forum, and Congress. 

Mr. George Clemens is the Head Coach for Speech and Debate. Being a coach means hard work, from not only shaping your students into incredible debaters and speakers but also coordinating out-of-state competitions. For example, it is common that the team must travel by plane and by bus, sometimes having to stay at a hotel for certain competitions that last multiple days. When hosting a competition at Lake Highland itself, volunteers must be gathered, and food must be catered, among many other things. All of this would not be possible without Mr. Clemens or any of the other coaches for Speech and Debate.

But all good things must come to an end. After 22 years of working as a coach for Speech and Debate at LHP, Mr. Clemens has decided to let his career as a coach come to a close. Mr. Clemens says that before coaching for Speech and Debate, he had attended a few trips and worked with some kids in the 1990s. It was only in 2001, however, that he filled the recently open job as a coach. “One of the Seniors was coaching the team and arranging the trips. He was one of my favorite students, and I had worked a little with him and his teammates over the previous couple of years. The program was going to shut down, and I’m not sure under the circumstances of the time whether or not it was going to continue,” explained Mr. Clemens. When asked what his favorite part of working in Speech and Debate was, he said it was, “The transformation that takes place from the beginning of a debate career to the end.” He explained that not only will students grow as competitors, but as people as well. 

Through Speech and Debate students learn, “Everything from getting around at an airport and having to learn unfamiliar terrain to how to write, research, challenge assumptions, connect with an audience, respond to setbacks and successes, and become informed about ‘some of the most crucial issues that we face as a society,’ the last part for the Oratories,” said Mr. Clemens. Original Oratory is an event where competitors must come up with an argument about critical concerns the world faces.

But why has Mr. Clemens decided to stop his coaching career now? Why not keep going? The answer is simple: “It was time. It has been 22 years,” he said shortly. But that is not all the reasoning behind his decision. “I had set a plan to step down if two things happened. The first was to wait until my two sons finished their education at LHP. They haven’t yet, but Lord willing, they will in May. The second was to make sure that the team had talented people in place to take over the program when I did decide to step down. We have that too.” 

People can sometimes dwell on the past, but it seems that Mr. Clemens doesn’t believe in that. When asked if he could change anything about his career, he said he doesn’t want, “To look back on my career in Speech and Debate and have regrets,” and that he, “Can’t change history.” Moreover, he explained that he has, “Been surrounded by wonderful students, fellow coaches, parents, and an administration that understood very early on how difficult the activity was, how dedicated the people that were participating in it were, and because of that, we have built a sustained nationally-recognized program that has endured and is poised to be even better.”

Mr. Nathan Johnston, the speech coach for Speech and Debate, works closely with Mr. Clemens. “He has a lot of great ideas to share,” said Mr. Johnston. “Seeing him work with kids for many years has been wonderful,” he added. Because of Mr. Clemens, Mr. Johnston claims that he’s learned a lot about managing Speech and Debate as a coach. He explained, “Simple things like how to run tabulation software or work with judges. Those lessons have been really valuable as [Mr. Clemens]  invited me into tabrooms.” 

Ms. Becca Traber, the Lincoln-Douglas coach for Speech and Debate, said she loves working with Mr. Clemens: “He’s a giant in the field, knows a lot about everyone in it, and is generally a fun person to have dinner with. I’ve been working with him part-time since 2014, which led me to taking a full-time job here in 2020 — so you can definitely see he has left a good impression!” On what lessons she’s learned from him, Ms. Traber responded, “He just knows so many people and a lot about the institutional structure of Speech and Debate. He also has an enormous amount of tacit knowledge about building a program, managing students and other teachers, and handling the variety of problems that come from a team of this scale.”

It is no doubt that Mr. Clemens’ students in Speech and Debate will miss him dearly. But it is also safe to say that Mr. Clemens will miss them as well. He compared it to familial relations: “The sheer amount of time that I have spent with LHPS Speech and Debaters can only be rivaled by the amount of time I have spent with my own family. They have also been my family.” Additionally, he left a sweet message for his students. “I hope the students that I have had the pleasure to coach realize that I love them all and did my best to try and provide them a place here at LHP to shine but also belong.” Mr. Clemens offered a piece of final advice: “Do your best. Love each other, and I will still be around to answer questions or watch an occasional speech or practice round. I’m stepping down but not going away.”

(Above) Ms. Becca Traber, LHP’s Lincoln-Douglas coach, as well as Ms. Jayanne Forrest, the adjunct coach for Lincoln-Douglas, work hard
with their team of dedicated debaters, Sohana Srinivasa, grade 9; Aleena Reddy, grade 10; Neha Patil, grade 11; Gabby McKenzie, grade 9; and Suchi
Vennam, grade 10. She often follows them to tournaments, as does Mr. George Clemens, which helps to keep as organized as possible in what
can be a crazy and chaotic environment. Tournaments can always be stressful, but these amazing coaches are always there for their students. Photo courtesy of the LHP Speech and Debate Instagram. (Photo courtesy of the LHP Speech and Debate Instagram.)
(Above) Jasmine Jiang, grade 10, is a part of the Original Oratory event in Speech and Debate. After school, she heads to Mr. Nathan Johnston’s classroom two times a week from Tuesday to Thursday to work on her speech. Photo by Olivia Santos. (Photo by Olivia Santos.)
(Above) Mr. George Clemens is be- loved by his students, Julia Woodward,
grade 10; Lauren Alicea, grade 10; Ms. Yair Fraifield (adjunct coach); Emma
Okaty, grade 11; Frances Yong, grade 11; Harleigh Demchak, grade 11; Samantha Go, grade 12; Tynan Tracy grade 10; and Sirisha Kumnaneni, grade 10, often going on trips and tournaments with them. A national tournament was held at Princeton University, ultimately being important for LHP’s Speech and De- bate team. Photo courtesy of the LHP Speech and Debate Instagram. (Photo courtesy of the LHP Speech and Debate Instagram.)