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Fast-talking Helena Thomas is passionate about debate

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Passionate aggression: Helena Thomas will travel to Canberra, Australia, in April to compete in the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships

In a debate, Helena Thomas really loves rebuttals.

The 16-year-old Bermuda High School student enjoys taking the other team’s arguments apart, point by point.

“Sometimes I just have to shake my head at some of the motions,” she said.

Her friends describe her as “aggressively passionate”.

“That means I am competitive, but I’m passionate,” she said. “So that’s OK, right?”

In April, the teenager will unleash her passionate aggression on the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships in Canberra, Australia.

She qualified in October at the International Independent Schools Public Speaking Championships in Vancouver, Canada. It was her second time taking part.

This time around, she won the Phil Hansen Award for exhibiting team spirit, among other things.

Her schoolmates, Varshini Srinivasan and Hannah Taylor, also qualified for the Worlds, but declined to go.

Representing Bermuda: the Bermuda High School debate team Vikashni Ragunathan, left, Varshini Srinivasan, Hannah Taylor and Helena Thomas at the at the International Independent Schools Public Speaking Championships in Vancouver, Canada last October (Photograph supplied)

“It is the first time BHS has been able to send somebody in over a decade,” Helena’s debate coach Jennifer Burland Adams said. “I have had students who have qualified before, but the competition conflicted with their exam schedule. Helena will be representing not just BHS, but also Bermuda.”

Warwick Academy student McKenzie-Kohl Tuckett, went to the competition in 2021 and placed 16th.

At Worlds, Helena will take part in four events: impromptu speech, after dinner speech, debate, and interpretive reading.

In the after dinner speech round, students can talk about something that exists or completely make it up.

“My speech will be about the Lonely Hearts Club,” she said. “That is a club I invented. The audience is meant to be its members, a group of singles trying to find people in a world where corporatised and monetised romance has skewed the definition of love.”

Helena got some practice giving the speech earlier this month at an English Speaking Union meeting at the Dinghy Club in Paget.

The organisation’s mission is to give young people the speaking and listening skills and cultural understanding they need to thrive.

“It went really well,” Helena said. “I was afraid they would not find me funny, and would yell ‘get off the podium’ or ‘drop that mike!’ That didn’t happen.

“They laughed at my jokes. The best part was that they were actually engaged in what I was saying, and clapped when I told them to.”

For her interpretive reading at the Worlds she will deliver an excerpt from Lessons in Chemistry, a book by Bonnie Garmus.

“The first time I went to IISP, I went into the room to watch Varshini give her interpretive reading,” Helena said. “I thought it would be fun, like an audiobook. Then the other students started with the trigger warnings. They read things about murder, violence, rape, drug abuse and school shootings. It was sad and I left the room heart broken.”

When she goes to Worlds she wants to use a different strategy.

“I want to make them laugh,” she said. “It will be a tonal shift after all the trigger warnings.”

Her coach, Ms Burland Adams, will be going with her to Australia. Ms Burland Adams herself competed in Worlds when she was a student.

“I don’t really remember what the debate topic was,” Ms Burland Adams said. “It was more than 30 years ago.”

Helena initially got into debate in middle school through her friend Varshini.

“I tend to speak loudly and in a tone that makes people think I’m a confident speaker,” Helena said. “It was just my tone; it wasn’t confidence. But I have definitely become a better speaker and writer through debate and public speaking.”

She is now in her first year of BHS’ new two-year A-level programme, and has started coaching BHS’ middle schoolers in debate.

“I enjoy doing it until we get to the week before the competition, and I hear the speeches and I think, that is not going to work,” Helena said. “Or I hear their rebuttals, and I think, is that really where you want to go with this?

“I am trying to get them to ask for more points of information. However, there is a fine line between doing that and being annoying.”

When Helena isn’t debating, she enjoys long-distance running for stress relief.

In January, she came second in the Bermuda Triangle Challenge 10K in the 16 to 18 age group.

“I like getting trophies after running,” she joked. “There are not a lot of other people competing in long distance in my age category, so I tend to do well, by default.”

Helena also likes the trophies involved in public speaking, but there is more competition for them.

She likes debate a little more than running.

“You get to sit down in debate,” she said. “I like exercise, but I enjoy sitting more than running.”

Helena aims to become a corporate lawyer.

“I want to work either with pharmaceutical companies or the people suing them,” she said. “It depends on how kind I am feeling. I know that is oddly specific, but I think that would be a fun thing to be.”

Later this year, BHS and Saltus will host the 2024 International Independent Schools Public Speaking Competition. They expect more than 150 pupils and coaches to visit the island to take part.

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Published February 28, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated February 29, 2024 at 8:21 am)

Fast-talking Helena Thomas is passionate about debate

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