On Monday, Scobie casually tells Ishmael that he’s put Ishmael’s name down for the Year Nine debating team. Ishmael is hysterical and says he can’t do it. He’d rather tangle with Frankie Crow than speak in front of people. Scobie says that Ishmael can sit out the first round and then join in, but Ishmael sees that Scobie has no idea how public speaking makes Ishmael feel (like his face is in flames and his legs are made of Jell-O). Scobie obviously won’t understand.
Scobie, remember, is a skilled orator—despite his small stature, he can rev up an entire school if someone gives him a mic. Ishmael, however, is self-conscious about all sorts of things and, it seems, may also be one of those people Scobie mentioned at the all-school assembly who fears public speaking more than dying.
Ishmael says he can’t do it, so Scobie asks if Ishmael would do it if he didn’t have to speak. This is an interesting proposition—perhaps Ishmael can also join the swim team and not swim, or marry a pretty girl and have kids without having to ever speak to her. Scobie says they can have five boys on their team: three to debate, a reserve, and Ishmael, who can help research and write the speeches. Ishmael knows there’s a library at school and how to use it. Ishmael trusts Scobie, but he’s still terrified. Scobie says they can go to a debating workshop next weekend. And if more than five boys sign up, Ishmael doesn’t have to do it. Ishmael agrees.
Note that Ishmael ultimately agrees to sign up because he trusts Scobie so fully. Scobie has, thus far, protected Ishmael from Barry, so Ishmael sees no real reason why Scobie can’t also protect him from having to speak in public. Joining up also starts to push Ishmael out of his comfort zone, which helps jump-start his coming-of-age process. And the fact that Scobie gets Ishmael to agree at all is a sign of how strong Scobie and Ishmael’s friendship is.