SULTAN OF SWAY: La Jolla student named San Diego County debate champ


Tim Kelly, a junior at The Bishop’s School, has been named debater of the year by the San Diego/Imperial Valley Speech League. Kelly, 16, is the first champion from a La Jolla high school in at least 20 years.

“Tim is particularly good at seeing both sides of an issue and being persuasive on both sides,” said Matthew Valji, speech and debate team coach for Bishop’s. “There are times when I’m not really sure which side he really believes in personally — which is a good thing, because in life, we don’t always get to choose which side we’re on.”

Kelly — who lives in Rancho Santa Fe with his parents and college-age sister — trounced about 400 students in the league so far this school year. (Even though they compete on teams, the members are ranked individually during tournaments.)

“Rather than ‘I’m the best,’ it’s more like, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this so long, here’s this acknowledgement of how long I’ve been doing this,’” said Kelly, who joined the Bishop’s School debate team in seventh grade — even though he wasn’t supposed to. (That’s how persuasive he is.)

“We didn’t realize it was a club only for high school,” Kelly said. “Me and another seventh-grader just walked into Mr. Valji’s room, sat down and started listening and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

According to Kelly, debate is more art than science. “It’s your ability to take what you know and present it in a way, to an audience, that makes them believe your side,” he said. “Just from my experience, I’d say that the way you frame an argument or try to appeal to a judge’s emotions is more important than actually coming to a logical conclusion.”

Kelly, who specializes in parliamentary and congressional debate styles, practices every Monday and Friday after school for 12 annual tournaments that last 12-14 hours, sometimes longer. (He and five other members of the 50-strong Bishop’s debate team head to the California High School Speech Association championships May 3-5 at Cal State Long Beach.)

Kelly’s favorite debate-team moment so far was the final round of the first congress tournament of last year. He was one of 14 competitors, paired down from 80, debating a bill to expedite the processing of children of rape.

“That was the most passionate I ever felt when talking about a subject,” Kelly said. “A large percentage of rape victims, we have evidence that can put their attackers behind bars that we’re not using.”

Kelly said he envisions a future in which he uses his debating superpowers to argue cases as an attorney. For now, however, he’s content busting them out for key family discussions. For instance, when his sister came back from college for the first time, she insisted they eat where she wanted, because she had been away for six months.

“I said, ‘I did just win a speech and debate tournament, and it’s not as if we aren’t paying for you to have access to food at your college,’” Kelly recalled.

That night, the family dined at Dumpling Inn, which was Kelly’s choice.