A half-hour later, the debating team takes their seats. Ishmael studies the Preston team, who are dressed like undertakers. As Ignatius opens the debate, Ishmael finally remembers the horror of the last debate. But when Ignatius calls up the first member of the Preston team, Ishmael starts to feel better—she’s good, but not great, and Ishmael knows he has good rebuttal points. Though Ishmael’s stomach is churning, he steps to the front of the room when Ignatius calls his name. In the audience, Mom and Dad are trying unsuccessfully to look casual.
It seems likely that Ishmael did just need some practice and experience debating. He seems to know his topic way better this time than he did last time, but notice that he’s also able to pay attention to what the Preston girl is saying and identify where she’s weak. It’s also a mark of Ishmael’s confidence that he allows Mom and Dad to come watch (recall that the last time Ishmael spoke, he refused to let Dad come so Dad wouldn’t have to witness the embarrassment).
Ishmael looks down at his cards. Razza scribbled on it that Ishmael is “da man” and asks if Elvis is in his underwear. Ishmael starts speaking with a smile. He mumbles and stumbles. It’s not brilliant, but he stays conscious, doesn’t sexually harass the opposition, and nothing falls out of his shorts. Once the second speakers have both gone, Ishmael realizes that St. Daniel’s is doing well. The third speaker for Preston is good, and Razza and Ishmael exchange knowing looks. But Bill is paying close attention, shaking his head, and taking notes.
Ishmael acknowledges that objectively, he’s not great. So it’s another mark of his growth and development that he’s willing to congratulate himself for, essentially, making it through the debate without encountering major disasters. He’s becoming more comfortable with taking pride in small victories, essentially. And though Ishmael and Razza seem ready to accept defeat, Bill is more engaged than he’s ever been—he’s still fighting.
When Ignatius calls Bill up, Bill gives an impassioned, persuasive speech. He even dumps his index cards, but he continues as though nothing happened. Bill continues past the three-minute and four-minute bells until Razza sneezes for him to stop. Bill stops, concludes his argument, and sits down. The room erupts in applause. Razza nudges Ishmael and nods in Bill’s direction. Bill looks different than usual—he’s smiling.
Ishmael is changing a lot. But what’s more obvious to Ishmael at the moment is the change in Bill, who seems to have suddenly come to life. Finally, Bill got the opportunity to show people that he’s intelligent, passionate, and can speak well. This makes him feel better about himself, and it also earns him his teammates’ support.
St. Daniel’s loses by one point, but nobody on the team cares. They’re happy that they almost won. The St. Daniel’s team talks with the Preston team and agrees to go and support them at the finals. And weirdly, the Preston kids don’t seem all that different. Ishmael’s favorite part is when Miss Tarango tells the team that they’re her heroes—and that Bill is her “Jedi knight in shining armor.” It ends up being one of the best nights of Ishmael’s life. It could only be better if Scobie had been there. But the next day, Ishmael doesn’t have to wonder anymore where Scobie is, because he gets a letter from him.
It's huge that Ishmael now realizes that the Preston kids aren’t so different from him and his teammates. With this, Ishmael starts to acknowledge that he might be more normal than he thinks he is—and that everyone else could be struggling with some of the same things he is. And it’s a mark of how good of a friend Ishmael is that what he really loves about this night is that Miss Tarango compliments Bill so strongly. It feels good that Ishmael succeeded—but it feels better to see his friends get recognition and respect.