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Respect is Not up for Debate

My senior year of high school I made it to the finals of a small-scale debate tournament held at my school with two other high schools from the area. The four finalists had to compete in a bracket set-up of impromptu debating on the stage of our auditorium. When I took the stage for the semi-final round with my opponent we shook hands before the topic was read. The auditorium was eerily quiet as we had a minute to prepare our arguments.

As the debate ran on, my opponent’s school mates became rowdy as they would jeer at my arguments and cheer over-zealously for their hometown boy. I kept my composure throughout the debate and as protocol required, shook his hand again as we exited the stage.

The auditorium was relaxed once more as the judges took some time to deliberate. As my opponent returned to his teammates, I decided I had had enough of their mockery. With my head held high, I marched over to the row of students and…introduced myself.

The boys were shocked. I walked down the line of them, one by one, shaking their hands and saying hello. I responded with kindness, and was immediately met with respect. By the time I had reached the end of the row, they were congratulating me. The same group of rambunctious teenagers who had once let their competitive spirit blur their eyes to the fact that a human being was standing in front of them now sat before me eagerly engaging in conversations about school, life, and public speaking.

I was no different than them just as they were no different than I. It would have been easy to become upset about the situation or to write their behavior off as immature antics. But sometimes, easy isn’t what is needed. Sometimes, a handshake is all it takes to change someone’s mind. Sometimes, a smile is the start of a beautiful friendship.

I’d like to say that we all became good friends, exchanging letters from our college dorm rooms and catching up over lunch on winter break. None of that happened though. I can’t remember their names and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lifetime goes by before I see any of them, but they taught me a valuable lesson that day. Everybody deserves to be treated with respect and kindness and anybody can change at the hand of a smile and an introduction.

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