A Childhood Subject to Debate


Who knew big words and knew how to use them? Was he a charmer or an insufferable smart aleck—or maybe both? Mark Oppenheimer was just such a boy, his talent for language a curse as much as a blessing. Unlike math or music prodigies, he had no way to showcase his unique skill, except to speak like a miniature adult—a trick some found impressive but others found irritating. Frustrated and isolated, Oppenheimer used his powers for ill—he became a wisenheimer—pushing his peers and teachers away, acting out with prank phone calls, and worse. But when he got to high school, Oppenheimer discovered an outlet for his loquaciousness: the debate team.

This smart, funny memoir not only reveals a strange, compelling subculture, it offers a broader discussion of the splendor and power (including the healing power) of language and of the social and developmental hazards of being a gifted child. Oppenheimer’s journey from loneliness to fulfillment affords a fascinating inside look at the extraordinary subculture of world-class high-school debate and at the power of language to change one’s life.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 256 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451611915 | 
  • April 2011
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Wisenheimer author Mark Oppenheimer Revealed

Author Mark Oppenheimer reveals his favorite TV show and movie.

Read an Excerpt


When I was a small child, Walter and Rebekah Kirschner, my mother’s parents, were my favorite people in the world. They were kind and generous and interested in what their young grandson thought about things. Visiting them in Philadelphia at their big house on Carpenter Lane—my grandfather was a retired carpenter, and he lived on Carpenter Lane, a bit of serendipity that I found marvelous—I would go to bed late, usually after my grandfather and I had watched an 11 P.M. rerun of Benny Hill on the snowy UHF channel, and rise early. Coming downstairs in the morning, I would find my grandmother in her... see more

About the Author

Mark Oppenheimer
Photograph by Whitney Lawson

Mark Oppenheimer

Mark Oppenheimer is a regular writer for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, and The Forward. His journalism has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, Details, and Travel + Leisure, and his essays have appeared in The Believer, The American Scholar, and Yale Review. He is the author of two books, a founding editor of The New Haven Review, and an occasional commentator on NPR's All Things Considered and Day to Day. In the school year 2008-2009, Oppenheimer was a lecturer in the English and Political Science departments of Yale University and a visiting professor of creative writing at Wellesley College. He has also taught at Wesleyan and Stanford. He holds a doctorate in religious studies from Yale and is currently the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative. With his wife, daughters, dog, and two cats, he lives in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut.




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