For many years, Petal student Jackson “Max” Garner looked up to the students at his school’s speech and debate team, later joining the team in middle school and competing throughout all four years of high school.
Now, Max has blazed a path of his own in that organization, recently being named the Mississippi (Magnolia District) Student of the Year for the National Speech and Debate Association. With that honor, he was able to represent his state in competition last week in the National Speech and Debate Tournament, featuring students from 1,322 schools throughout all 50 states as well as four other countries.
“Really, I’m humbled by it,” said Max, who graduated from Petal High School last month. “I wasn’t expecting, when I was nominated, to win it over all the amazing competitors that were nominated as well.
“It was a really resounding experience, because I feel so honored to be the one to get to represent our state and our district in such a capacity.”
During the tournament – which was originally scheduled to take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic – Max debated in topics including whether to support green energy and whether nationalism is considered dangerous. Max’s team made it through the preliminary rounds but was defeated in the elimination rounds.
“Really and truly, it was a new experience, but our team motto was always ‘One Team, Still Many Screams,’” Max said. “But overall, I would say that we did really well.”
Each year, every district in the National Speech and Debate Association recognizes one student from all senior student members in the association. Nominees are chosen for embodying the association’s code of honor: integrity, humility, respect, leadership and service. Nominees were also chosen for their strong academic credentials and a commitment to the speech and debate community.
The winners are picked by a panel of coaches from other districts, business leaders and college administrators.
“I’ve only ever had two other students in my entire career who received the honor, and each time it has been completely special and well-deserved,” said Petal speech and debate coach Kelly Garner, who is Max’s mother. “But with it being my own child, I don’t know that words can adequately describe the way it feels.”
Usually, the nominations are made by the students’ own coaches. But because Kelly is Max’s mother, she didn’t nominate him for ethical reasons.
Instead, Max’s nomination came from Anita Boyd, the head speech and debate coach at Laurel Christian High School.
“I wouldn’t have nominated him, ethically, even though I think he’s a great kid and has all the qualities that you would need to be student of the year,” Kelly said. “I kind of told him that years ago, because I’ve been coaching him since he was a seventh-grader.
“(Another coach nominating somebody) has only ever happened one other time, I think, in the whole history of our state. So it was kind of off my radar that it could happen, but it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless.”
Kelly said she was very honored to know that other people outside of Petal thought enough about Max to nominate him over their students.
“Really, the piece that means the most to me as a mom is the fact that when it was all said and done … it got back to me that the reason they chose him was because the other coach had written some instances where he really acted with honor and integrity,” Kelly said. “She listed a time where, at a district tournament, Max was in debate situation against a rival team, and they accidentally sent him some information on their debate team.
“He refused to open it or use it – he immediately alerted the officials what had happened, when he could have very easily gotten the advantage of opening it and using it and winning the debate. But he chose not to do that – he chose to do the honorable thing and alert everyone. For a coach and a mom, that’s a big deal.”
Max now plans to attend Pearl River Community College before heading to Mississippi State University to pursue an engineering career.
“I’m not if PRCC has a speech and debate team, but I will be looking into it,” he said. “But I know Mississippi State does, so as soon as I get there, that will be one of the first things I apply for.”