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The Amazing True Story of How the Most Unlikely Team from the Most Unlikely of Places Overcame Staggering Obstacles at Home and at School to Challenge the Debate Community on Race, Power, and Education

Joe Miller


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ISBN10: 0312426976
ISBN13: 9780312426972

Trade Paperback

528 Pages



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An American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults Nominee

By almost all measures, Kansas City's Central High School is just another failing inner-city school. Ninety-nine percent of the students are minorities. Only one in three graduates. Test scores are so low that Missouri bureaucrats have declared the school "academically deficient." But week after week, a crew of Central kids head off to debate tournaments in the suburbs, where they routinely beat teams from top-ranked schools. In a game of fast-talking, wit, and sheer brilliance, these students close the achievement gap between black and white schools—an accomplishment that educators and policy makers across the country have been striving toward for years.

Here is the story of four debaters and their coach as they battle formidable opponents from elite prep schools, bureaucrats who seem maddeningly determined to hold them back, friends and family who are mired in poverty and drug addiction, and—perhaps most daunting—their own self-destructive choices. In Cross-X, Joe Miller captures Central's remarkable journey through its triumphant 2002 season.


Praise for Cross-X

"While Cross-X might have started out as a Rocky-like story of a team conquering great odds, it morphs into an important, thoughtful, and provocative look at race and class in America, celebrating the tiny—and triumphant—inroad that these kids made in their lives and in the world of debate."—Caroline Leavitt, The Boston Globe

"You don't need much imagination to see this book as a movie. It has all the ingredients to warm the hearts of an audience. Picture Stand and Deliver meets Hoosiers . . . Miller has written a big, sprawling book, with almost as many characters and philosophical asides as a 19th-century Russian novel. Not that it isn't exciting—the scenes describing Central in face-to-face showdowns with snotty private schools may have you leaping ahead to find out what happens. But despite the team's miraculous finish at the nationals, we shouldn't forget an important fact: In a truly free and equal society, it wouldn't seem to be a miracle when black kids succeed."—Howard Good, coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Teacher magazine

"[A] a rambunctious, irresistible 500-page doozy . . . Miller begins breezily but is soon deeply invested in the Central squad's mission to not only master the debate game on its own terms but revolutionize it with flashes of poetry and hip-hop wordplay. By the time it goes up against some of the best teams in the nation, the team has sparked a dialogue about race and class among still-open young minds. If all these kids could run thins, Miller implies, imagine what could get done."—Elle

"An engaging and descriptive account of the school's policy debate program and the outstanding students on its squad . . . Miller's account of the 2004-2005 season is a powerful element of his account of the Central squad, and this great Crusade to revolutionize an institution . . . An engaging account with a new, fresh angle on the state of the American educational system."—Maddy Joseph, Young D.C.

"[Cross-X] makes for a rare flowering in Kansas City, all the more powerful for what it says about all the other American high schools where hope is in short supply."—The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Resolved: Joe Miller's new book on race, power and a Central High School debate squad that shocked its rivals by rapping arguments to hip-hop music may become a best-seller, land him on Oprah and inspire a movie . . . Through its pages, readers get an intimate and unblinking look at inspiring but far-from-perfect debaters Ebony, Antoine, Marcus and Brandon as they struggle, study and succeed."—The Kansas City Star

"In his exceptional new book, Cross-X, Joe Miller offers an unforgettable portrait of life on the 'wrong' side of our nation's school system and a passionate analysis of the forces that have combined to keep its students in the dark. His story of Central High's young debaters and their redoubtable teacher is heroic but never rose-colored—it will engulf readers as the world of debate has engulfed him."—Whitney Terrell, author of The King of Kings County and The Huntsman

"Cross-X is one of the most original and compelling narratives about race, class and education that I have ever read. Herein, Joe Miller proves himself both a first-rate storyteller, and a keen observer of the way in which urban communities (and the people who live there) have been decimated by racism and economic apartheid. The young men and women at the heart of this volume, who show their resolve in struggling against a culture of intellectual elitism within the world of competitive debate, and the society at large, are heroes in every sense of the word; and Miller, by telling their story, has done a great service to us all."—Tim Wise, author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White

"Both the author and his subjects come of age in this thoughtful portrait of an urban debate team struggling to win matches on a playing field clearly stacked against its members. Each morning in Kansas City, Mo., the students at Central High—nearly all African-American, many of them poor—pass through metal detectors to enter their academically deficient school. One bright spot is the debate squad. Coached by a middle-aged white woman named Jane Rinehart, it has fielded several successful teams on the national circuit. Local journalist Miller followed the program through the 2002 season, focusing on four kids who made up two teams. Seniors Marcus and Brandon ended the season as one of the top teams in the country. Ebony and Antoine, both new to the game, became competitive as they learned the style as the season progressed. Miller does not tell a simple story of triumph over the odds. Instead, he depicts the complicated relationship between Rinehart and her team, the kids' sometimes bratty behavior, the vast backdrop of negligence and misguided ideology that have helped put Central's students at a serious disadvantage in American society. His descriptions give the debates the drama of a championship football game. The style of debate was arcane: Kids purchased complicated 'evidence' off the Internet and literally speed-read their arguments as fast as they could rather than engaging in debate in the traditional sense. While the author at first believed that debating offered inner-city kids a ray of hope, he came to see its current emphasis on winning instead of genuine argument and dialogue as reinforcing the privileges of wealthy suburban kids while discouraging the participation of teens like those from Central. Deeply changed during the reporting process, Miller became the team's assistant coach, working to develop ways to bring new voices and styles to the debate circuit."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Journalist Miller's engrossing first book considers in depth the lives and competitions of Kansas City Central High's debate team . . . Jane Reinhart, the devoted, beleaguered coach, champions her students without support from the school administration or the debate community. Her debaters, dominantly senior Marcus and sophomore Ebony, are keen-witted kids who thrive in debate largely because their environment doesn't afford them anywhere else to thrive. Central typifies poorly cared for, predominantly black schools in disintegrating neighborhoods. Tournament encounters with teams from wealthy prep schools demonstrate a hard truth: intelligent, high-capacity students rise up in the inner city just as in the suburbs, but few are as fortunate even as Marcus and Ebony. Miller begins as a reporter and becomes an actor, increasingly fascinated by debate, attached to the kids on Central's debate team, and dismayed by the injustice of their situation. He takes a formal role as assistant debate coach and works with Ebony and debate partner Geoffery on a novel, race-conscious strategy that reverberates across the debate community."—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington Libraries, Ohio, Library Journal

"Journalist Miller followed an inner-city high-school debate team through an entire season as the squad members overcame family problems and deficiencies in their school to end with a top-10 finish in the national championship. Central High School, in Kansas City, Missouri, suffered high dropout rates, with only one in three freshmen destined to graduate. The debate teacher, a white woman, used the students' street attitude and hunger to get beyond their rough neighborhoods to compete in a fast-talking, quick-witted challenge against students from the suburbs. Miller focuses on debaters Marcus, Brandon, and Ebony, and their coach, Jane Rinehart, as they prepare for the steep competition that will take them across the country, visiting colleges and elite prep schools. As the debate squad advances, Miller captures the rising tension and action of the art of argument. By focusing on the debate team, Miller examines efforts to improve academic performance at inner-city schools, close the achievement gap between students of different races and economic backgrounds, and the broader issues of overcoming poverty."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

"For anyone who thinks of high school debate and envisions nerdy teens, the story of the Kansas City Central debate squad will be eye-opening. Despite the inner-city school's academic deficiencies, and the students' own turbulent home lives, the young African-American debaters have been able to carve out a sphere of success for themselves—in part by making the racial issues surrounding their participation a key part of their arguments . . . The reporting is both lively and engrossing . . . [and] the book encourages most readers to learn more about these remarkable teens."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


JANE RINEHART began the best and worst year of her teaching career in a familiar pose: hands on hips, lips pinched in a downward twist,...

About the author

Joe Miller

Joe Miller's writing has appeared in Popular Science, Vibe, and Poets & Writers Magazine. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

Michael McClure