President Biden’s choice for the U.S. Supreme Court is a graduate of a Florida public high school, where she was a member of the debate team. Justice Jackson has described her participation on the debate team as a crucial factor in her intellectual development. Debate taught her critical thinking skills, writing, speaking, and self-confidence. The school still exists but the Governor and Legislature have done everything possible to destroy the state’s public schools by favoring charters and vouchers and diverting billions of public school dollars to “choice.”

PINECREST, Fla. — Let Miami Palmetto Senior High School brag for a moment: It has a swoon-worthy alumni roster. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, class of ’82. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, class of ’94. And Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, class of ’88.

Decades have passed since Jackson, 51, was a stellar student at Palmetto, a large public school nestled among the palm trees of the South Florida suburbs. But the school held outsize importance in her life, thanks to a competitive speech and debate team led by a famed coach who molded her protégés into sharp-tongued speakers and quick critical thinkers.

“That was an experience that I can say without hesitation was the one activity that best prepared me for future success in law and in life,” Jackson said at a lecture in 2017.

From the tightknit and wonky debate team emerged accomplished professionals who remain unusually close 30 years later. (Jackson’s prom date? A guy who would become a U.S. attorney, the chief federal prosecutor in Miami.) Now the team offers a glimpse into how Jackson’s early life led to a Supreme Court nomination — and how her success is inspiring a new generation of debaters to dream big.

“I learned how to reason and how to write,” she said in the lecture, “and I gained the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to learn at an early age.”

One former teammate, Craig Tinsky, who is a visual artist in Washington, D.C., recalled Jackson delivering a powerful speech about confronting and overcoming fears, as well as a humorous interpretation of the Neil Simon play “Fools” that had the audience in stitches.

Jackson has spoken often, including in her 2013 swearing-in as a judge, about how much high school meant to her. She was the class president and has helped organize class reunions. But above all, she was a top debater.

Not everything was easy. As a 17-year-old, she sat on a panel discussion about race and ethnic relations and recounted having a drama teacher tell her she would not be able to win a role in a play because it was about a white family.
“If you don’t talk about it, you never deal with it,” she said of prejudice in the school, where the student body was 73% white, 16% Black and 11% Hispanic.

Jackson grew up in what she has described as a predominantly Jewish suburb of Miami, attending her friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs. At the time, Palmetto was in an unincorporated residential neighborhood known as East Kendall that is now the upscale village of Pinecrest.