Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on display in two documentaries he’s produced-directed showing at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival.
Both films focus on a subculture subject close to his heart, competitive debate. This once itinerant gonzo journalist now based in Los Angeles was a champion debater at Omaha Creighton Prep in the mid 1970s. This self-described “evangelist for debate” passionately portrays the hyper intense activity’s transformational power in his own life and in the lives of South Bronx kids of color.
Master Debaters shows March 6 in the 8:30-10:15 p.m. block of Neb. short docs. shows March 8 at 12:30 p.m. in the feature-length doc block. He’ll do a Q&A after each.
He’s hoping his films inspire funding for an urban debate league he wants to start here as a way to motivate kids to excel in school.
Those familiar with Crotty may find his new gigs as Forbes.com education reporter and crusading debate advocate a departure. It’s actually a catharsis after tiring of the vagabond Kerouac thing, dealing with a protracted lawsuit and losing his intellectual guru and most influential debate mentor – his mother.
He says, Monk, “the National Geographic for freaks,” was as much a rebellion against his Catholic Republican upbringing as anything.
“I was Mr. Alternative hipster subculture guy with Monk and I had this nagging sense the whole time I was interviewing people like the founder of the school for boys who want to be girls to Kurt Cobain to just any kind of an eccentric person or place across the fruited plain that I did not grasp the dominant culture conversation.
“I just felt deep inside I was an uneducated man even though I’d gone to Northwestern. I felt like i was a fraud even though I was really good at spinning this alternative universe.”
He could no longer square his “out there” image with the Jesuit call to be a man for others instilled in him at Prep. He resolved to improve himself and to use debate – “the most profound education experience of my life” – as a means to serve kids from disadvantaged straits.
He felt the discipline of debate helped him and his Prep teammates, among them Alexander Payne (who appears in Crotty’s Kids), find success and he saw no reason it couldn’t do the same for others.
“We were this tribe of academic athletes that learned through debate the ability to speak on our feet, to persuade others about the rightness of our cause. It gives you incredible confidence to tackle any subject. When you’re at the top of your game you’re spending four to five hours a day on it in addition to your schoolwork. And you’re not just reading secondary sources you’re looking up primary sources, you’re going to law libraries, you’re reading studies, you’re really digging deep and you’re able to sort fact from fiction.
“When you have a finely-tuned debate brain the most innocuous statement can be broken apart and you’re able to see through poppycock almost instantly and it’s something really missing in the culture. People are easily bamboozled by false prophets who just because they have such a strong opinion people think they’re telling the truth. That is dangerous for Democracy.”
He says the research skills he learned have served him well.
“I’m able to look beneath the surface to find the truth. Doing Monk I was able to find these people and places that even locals didn’t know existed. That’s because debate trains you to be a geek researcher.”
The sudden death of his mother in 2002 set him on a “sea change” that led him to become a high school debate coach.
“I really felt the calling to help inner city kids.”
But first he needed to immerse himself in education.
“For years I really wanted to study the classics, the great books of civilization. I finally got the chance after we sued Tony Shalhoub and the producers of the Monk TV show in the late ’90s for stealing our brand. It took two years. In 2000 I decided to give up the Monk (mag) hat and go back to school and study the great books at a great little school called St. Johns College Santa Fe (N.M.).
“You sit around a table seminar-style and the tutors ask really good questions to help you dig deeper into the text. I really became a disciple of their method.”
He emerged from his mid-life crisis with a teaching certificate that allowed him to teach the classics and to coach debate. He began at two elite New York City schools to freshen his chops.
“I had been so long out of the game and I knew it had changed a lot. It’s like coming back to play any sport 25-30 years later. It had gotten so much faster.”
He says coaching proved emotional for him because “it gave me a way to give back during a difficult time in my life – I was mourning my mother through coaching these kids.”
After joining the newly formed Eagle Academy in the mid-2000s he made his experience there the basis for Crotty’s Kids.
He says the difference between a product of white privilege like himself and “a kid who grows up in the South Bronx is not as great as people might think,” adding, “The one thing that was really obvious to me is that a young man in the South Bronx does not just walk into a whole bunch of cultural capital just by osmosis.”
He says his growing up in a home filled with books and dinner-time conversations about current events is a far cry from what the kids he worked with experienced.
“These kids don’t have that by and large. As a result their vocabulary and basic reasoning powers are not being developed. So my job as a coach was to fill in that gap – the cultural capital piece – and the way I did that was to have adult, intellectual, fact-based conversations with them about whatever interested them. I also had my kids read the classics.”
He says the process of competitive speech and debate develops critical thinking skills in youths that have “an incredible trickle down effect that enables them to excel in school at a much higher level than their peers.” He adds, “It sort of feeds on itself. Young men and women at-risk are looking to compete and win. You get them to see it as a sport and they do whatever it takes. It becomes infectious.”
Sure enough, his kids became champions. One earned a full-ride.
Yet the central focus of Crotty’s Kids is Crotty, not the kids. He comes off as charismatic, quirky, caring, driven. He didn’t intend being the “star” but the footage or lack thereof dictated it.
“It’s not the Hoop Dreams of debate I wanted to make, it’s some other film,” he says.
He’s still in touch with some of his old students, several of whom are doing well in college.
“I’m a kind of surrogate father figure but I don’t push it. I had my chance to really impart as much as I could while I was with them but they need to figure things out on their own. They always know I’m there for them if they ever get in a jam.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.