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.
Mark Oppenheimer is a regular writer for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, and The Forward. His journalism has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, Details, and Travel + Leisure, and his essays have appeared in The Believer, The American Scholar, and Yale Review. He is the author of two books, a founding editor of The New Haven Review, and an occasional commentator on NPR's All Things Considered and Day to Day. In the school year 2008-2009, Oppenheimer was a lecturer in the English and Political Science departments of Yale University and a visiting professor of creative writing at Wellesley College. He has also taught at Wesleyan and Stanford. He holds a doctorate in religious studies from Yale and is currently the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative. With his wife, daughters, dog, and two cats, he lives in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut.