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Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate Hardcover – April 13, 2010


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (April 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439128642
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439128640
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,720,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Have you ever met a child who talked like an adult? Who knew big words and how to use them? Was he a charmer or an insufferable smart aleck--or maybe both? Mark Oppenheimer was just such a boy, his talent for language a curse as much as a blessing. But when he got to junior high, Oppenheimer discovered an outlet for his loquaciousness: the debate team. Frank and comical, Wisenheimer chronicles the travails of a hyperarticulate child who finds salvation in the heady world of competitive oratory. In stirring prose, Oppenheimer describes what it was like to have a gift with no useful application. Unlike math or music prodigies, he had no way to showcase his unique skill, except to speak like a miniature adult--a trick some found impressive but others found irritating. Frustrated and isolated, Oppenheimer used his powers for ill--he became a wisenheimer, pushing his peers and teachers away. Then, in junior high, he discovered the world he was meant for: the debate club. His skill with language was finally being channeled, refined, and honed into something beautiful. As Oppenheimer blossomed as a person, he also became a world-champion high school and college debater. His journey from loneliness to fulfillment affords a fascinating inside look at the extraordinary subculture of world-class high school debate and at the power of language to change one's life.

Oppenheimer writes movingly about the art of rhetoric, of his passion for it, and of the inspiration he derived from debating and watching others do it. This smart, funny memoir not only reveals a strange, compelling subculture, it also offers a broader discussion of the splendor and power of language and of the social and developmental hazards of being a gifted child. Finally, it looks with hope at our present age, in which oratory is once again an important force in American culture.

Revealing, touching, and entertaining, Wisenheimer offers a brilliant portrait of the rarefied world of high school and college debate--and of what it's like to grow up talkative in America.


A Conversation with Author Mark Oppenheimer

Q: What was the first sign that you were going to be a "different" kind of kid?

A: Like a lot of children, I talked early and had a very big vocabulary. I think what made me a bit different was that I couldn't stop talking, and I wanted to talk instead of doing just about anything else. From the time I was about one, I took a strong pleasure in words, not just as a means of communicating but as these cool little objects that could be put to use. When I was about four, I walked around a clothing boutique asking all the women shoppers how old they were--that was the kind of thing that got me in trouble. Although, as the owner said to my dad, "At least he wasn't asking their weight."

Q: You say in the book that you had a hard time with certain teachers. What happened, and why do you think that was?

A: Some teachers just didn't like that I would correct their grammar or their spelling. In fifth grade, one teacher crossed out the word "specific," which I had used in an assignment, and wrote "pacific." When I told her that I meant "specific," she said, sweet as could be, "Honey, there is no word 'specific.' You mean 'pacific.'" And that bothered me, not just because it obviously undermined my confidence that she had anything to teach me, but also because I had a strong moral sense that my fellow students would be misled. I thought I had to look out for them. Then, one teacher in particular, who was young and pretty insecure in the classroom, really didn't like me--she could be very cruel. The incident I recount in the book is when she took a poll of all my fellow students, asking who among them liked me! This was meant to put me in my place, I guess. Hard to believe that really happened, but it did. She later had a nervous breakdown and threatened to kill the principal, for what it's worth.

Q: Did you ever feel, as a kid, that your mouth kept you from making and keeping friends?

A: Sure. Anything that makes a student stand out can work against him. Or her, I might add--I actually think life is far harder for nerdy girls, because society has more rigid expectations for them. But one of the points I make in the book is that the United States has a lot of organized activities for math, science, or music prodigies, but really nothing to occupy a word nerd--at least not until high school, when debate teams kick in.

Q: What did discovering Judy Blume's fictional Tony Miglione do for you? And Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties? How did they affect you?

A: Tony Miglione was nearly my downfall--I imitated the prank phone calls he and his friend Joel make, and I was nearly arrested. The police paid my mother a call, I was pulled out of school. It was a very ugly episode in my childhood, and I won't say more here, because I shed all those tears writing it up for the book! But Alex P. Keaton--God bless him. That TV character made the word nerd seem cool. I watched Family Ties religiously, and if I ever meet Michael J. Fox I will give him an earful about what his role meant to me. It meant a great deal, truly.

Q: You first debated at age 12 with the Wilbraham & Monson Academy high school team--and your partner was an 18-year-old Hendrix-burning-the-guitar-era metalhead. What was your first tournament like?

A: Yeah, I was quite lucky. For junior high, my parents sent me to a grades 7-12 school, and the high school had a debate team. The kids on the debate team were basically a bunch of rejects (and I mean that in a nice way!): they were stoners, theater kids, other people who didn't fit into the jock culture of the school. And as a 12-year-old I got paired with this guy Todd, a senior who smoked cigarettes and played guitar. He was actually nice guy, pretty shy. I think he scared me and I scared him. But we won most of our rounds that winter.

Q: Then, you got thrown in a river. What happened?

A: You had to bring that up? I was reprising some of my Tony Miglione, prank-phone-call type stuff, and this other senior on the debate team caught on that I was harassing him. He was really mean, and I was scared of him, so I acted out the way I knew how. And he threw me in the Rubicon, which was this little creek that ran through campus. I went back to the scene of the crime not long ago, and the Rubicon was dried up. Damned global warming.

Q: Graduating to prep school level debate, you made a near-fatal error in your first prep school tournament--pulling at the judges' heart-strings too much. What did you learn from that? How did you recover?

A: Initially, I coasted on just being articulate, in this very dramatic way. Over time, however, I learned that you had to have good argumentation, too. It's always a balance, I think, between eloquence and argument. You need both. Most American high school debaters have a lot of argument, but aren't very eloquent. I had the opposite problem. (Of course, most of our politicians have neither!)

Q: What were some other crucial debating skills and strategies you learned along the way?

A: My coach, Mr. Robison, to whom the book is dedicated, had gone to graduate school in philosophy, and he would talk to us about the importance of really using philosophical concepts. It was from him, not from any classroom, that I first learned about utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and other ideas like that. I owe him a lot, not just because he taught me how to succeed in debate but also because he shaped my thinking in so many ways. Also, his father was a Baptist minister, so we would talk about religion--and now I write about religion for the New York Times.

Q: What was the best part of debate for you?

A: The community! Here were other word nerds, other kids who liked to argue. Through debate I met kids like me from about 20 states and 10 countries. It was amazing. Plus, I met one very cute girl at a debate tournament, although that ended disastrously, as anyone reading the book will see. I wince just thinking about it.

Q: Why didn't you make the debate team at Yale your freshman year?

A: I had a lot of conspiracy theories at the time, but probably I was just too cocky. Of course, I will never truly know, will I?

Q: When you did, eventually, make the team, how was college debate--Yale, in particular, as a member of American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA)--different from your high school form of debate?

A: APDA, which includes most of the Ivy League teams plus other schools, like Stanford and the University of Chicago, was riddled with corruption, because all the judging was done by other students. So if you lost to a Princeton debater one week, you might be judging him--and able to settle the score--the next. Plus, nobody really took the topics seriously. They just ignored the topic and debated whatever they wanted. It was sick, twisted, and bizarre.

Q: How did your love of debate and oratory lead you to study religion?

A: I think the common denominator was preaching. Who are the best public speakers in America? Preachers. Because, let's face it, most of our politicians can't speak their way out of a paper bag.

Q: Are you a lot like the child you used to be?

A: Well, my editors still get on my case about using words nobody understands. In an article I just wrote for the Times, my editor queried "shtiebel" and "elevenses." (You can look them up.) But in some ways I am pretty different. I have more self-confidence in other areas of life, so I am less attached to proving how articulate I can be. Then again, I write for a living, so who am I kidding? OK, gotta go have elevenses now. Talk to you later.


From Booklist

*Starred Review* In this wise, witty shout-out to geek culture, Oppenheimer relays his evolution from problem child to world-class debater. Part of what makes this memoir so special is the author’s openness about the frustration and isolation he met with as a precocious kid, especially during third and fourth grades, when he had a teacher who literally despised him. Tension at school caused him to act out and to remain friendless until he joined debate club in middle school. There he finally met other kids who, like him, loved language and lived to talk. He was so gifted at debate that he was soon participating in international tournaments—and winning them. This outlet for his verbosity not only garnered him the esteem he was so desperate to attain but also exposed him to some world-class talkers, among them the wry English, gregarious Australians, and hot-dogging Scots, who possessed a “merry nihilism.” His deft running narratives of various competitions contain the same suspense and thrills as the best sports books, while his astute analyses of teammates, coaches, and competitors read like the best kind of psychology. Read it for its sheer entertainment value or for its exuberant celebration of language—just make sure you read it. --Joanne Wilkinson

More About the Author

Mark Oppenheimer writes "Beliefs," a biweekly column for The New York Times. He also writes for The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Slate, the Forward, and Tablet. He teaches English, religion, and political science at Yale, where he is the director of the Yale Journalism Initiative. Mark lives with his wife, daughters, and dogs in New Haven, Connecticut. For more information, please check his website at markoppenheimer.com.

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Customer Reviews

If there were ever times when you felt like the odd one out growing up, this book is for you.
Phoebe Caulfield
Flaming an author for not writing the book you thought he should have, or for not living a different life than he did, are pretty weak arguments.
Andrew S. Rogers
I began reading it during my bus ride home and soon found myself empathizing with the author and loving his family, especially his grandparents.
Alisa Bowman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By EL on April 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are plenty of programs for a talented young athlete, gifted computer whiz, or violin prodigy, but in this memoir Mark Oppenheimer chronicles the lack of early school programs for verbal nerds like him. Liberal adults intent on finding consensus didn't know what to do with Mark's penchant for debate. Not until he reached high-school debate team did he have a positive outlet for his prodigious talent for arguing -- and not even, always, then. He doesn't position this as the victimhood of the gifted kid: not quite. Instead, this is the honest story of someone who humbly admits that his penchant for argument truly hurt others while isolating himself.

It is the story of a prep-school kid who believes that he is smarter than some of his teachers, and who persuaded me to believe that, too. If that is going to irritate you, then this book isn't for you. You don't have to read about Yalies. But if you, too, were a verbal nerd, a literate kid whose talents led to social isolation -- or if you know anyone like that -- then this book will be intriguing. It is already making me reflect back on my own childhood and think more about how I should raise my own daughter.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Silicon Valley Girl VINE VOICE on June 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
To the many varieties of memoir -- the traditional dysfunctional-childhood and adventure memoirs, and the newer "stunt memoir" -- we now have to add a new one: The nerd memoir. I'm thinking of "Just For Fun" by Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, and "House of Cards" by David Ellis Dickerson -- both stories of smart, unconventional, and maybe misfit men who, through various trials, find their path in life.

"Wisenheimer" fits right into this category. Mark Oppenheimer was a word nerd, a kid who loved to talk so much that when he was two years old, his mother would call up his father and beg him to come home so she could get a moment's peace and quiet. After a childhood of never fitting in at school -- and using his verbal precocity to do a couple of really rotten things -- Mark finally found a home away from home on the school debate team.

It's a great set-up. The problem is that it's just not all that interesting. I'll take Oppenheimer's word for it that he's a really good speaker, and maybe he's a good journalist, too. But as a memoirist, he's got some work to do. There's less humor than you'd expect from a book entitled "Wisenheimer." And the structure seems off somehow -- Oppenheimer breezes through his elementary school years, begins to hit his stride when he discovers debate in junior high, gives more details about the specifics of some of his high school debating tournaments than he really needs to, then backs off again when he gets to college and his interest in debate subsides.

The best sections of the book are the international debate tournaments held in England and Scotland. These scenes are filled with great visual detail, memorable characters, and debate scenes that are funny and interesting.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By EKC on May 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This memoir completely won me over with its vividly remembered moments and its sharp observations about families, friendships, and the awkward business of growing up. The details are killer: his grandmother's friend Adele Margolis, who pronouced foyer "foy-ay"; the fact that Tony Miglione, a Judy Blume creation, inspired a disastrous run of prank calling; the teacher who gently corrected his spelling of the word "specfically" to "pacifically."

As a story about a verbal prodigy, this *has* to be well written, and it is -- every word, every phrase feels just right. The book passes the test of good storytelling: by the end, you feel like you know (and care about) not only the author, but his family, friends, classmates, instructors.... This is a funny, rich personal history, and a great book to bring with you on vacation this summer.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By L. Bravim VINE VOICE on September 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What is life like for a child who speaks like an adult? Wisenheimer is Mike Oppenheimer's answer to that very question. For years, he was ostracized in Montessori and private schools. Ninety-nine percent hate their school uniforms. Mike relished wearing his bow tie, jacket, and slacks. Most kids speak with lazy grammar and use simple words. Oppenheimer spoke like a New York Times op-ed writer.

Those with high-level debate experience may scoff at Wisenheimer's accomplishments. He never competed in either of the two biggest leagues, the NFL (National Forensics League) or NCFL (National Catholic Forensics League). But clearly, the author made the most of what he had to work with. He dominated a small, New England confederation of 13 schools and did well competing in invitational tournaments in Europe.

The author does not self-censor. There are some morally reprehensible actions described here that would make anyone uncomfortable. Wisenheimer is an honest memoir from a writer still blessed with a gift for words. 4/5 stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Andrew S. Rogers VINE VOICE on January 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I picked up this book with a great deal of interest because I dabbled in interscholastic debate myself (here I use "dabbled" in the sense of "it was the primary focus of my energy and attention between eighth and twelfth grades, inclusive") and wanted to see what sorts of experiences and memories author Mark Oppenheimer and I might have in common. As it turned out, his world of debate and mine were pretty different -- in fact, the distinction between debate as he practiced it in high school and the more widespread world of "public school policy debate," as he calls it, in which I lived forms a key part of his story's denouement. Judging by the reviews here, some readers seem personally insulted by Oppenheimer's distance from the "mainstream" world of policy debate. But even though the specifics were different, the appeal of this book goes well beyond anything the author and I may or may not share.

As a young child, Mark Oppenheimer liked to talk. More than "liked," he was compelled to talk to the extent that his tearful mother would call his father at work to say, in effect, "He just won't shut up." Of impressive intellect but unfocused energy, our author was -- or at least makes himself out to be -- a pretty unpleasant kid. I applaud his honesty, though while I was reading this first section of the book I didn't like him very much and wished he'd hurry up and discover debate. I had some of those same feelings late in the book, during his semi-voluntary hiatus from debate in his freshman year at Yale.

The biggest problem I had with "Wisenheimer" was during that final, collegiate section of the book. The story reached its clear emotional peak with the author's graduation from Loomis Chafee.
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