Today was the first day of class. My first day as an instructor for Public Speaking 101. I was nervous, but I figured in about ten minutes, I was not going to be the most nervous person in the room.
I stood behind the lectern placed on the scarred wooden table and deliberately recalled some of my most frightening and nauseating public speaking experiences. I wished there weren’t so many. Would any of my students have similar memories? I knew there would be experienced and eloquent speakers in the class, at least I hoped there would be. But I also knew there would be at least one person, and maybe more, whose worst fear became real when they saw that Public Speaking 101 was a requirement for graduation.
As part of the course, I wanted my students to learn research skills, how to organize their ideas and how to “show not tell.” But more than that I wanted them to not dread talking in front of a group of people. Maybe not enjoy it, but not let fear squeeze their insides, impede their career advancement, or cripple them socially.
My goal was to make a specific, positive and self-affirming comment to each student when they gave a speech. At the same time, I had to teach and help each student improve and grow as a speaker. There could be no empty praise or vacuous compliments. What stood out, what was memorable, colorful, engaging? Where could a better phrase, analogy or vocal inflection be enhanced?
How could I ever do this? Would I even be able to do this? Would I even know if I wounded a student’s psyche? Sometimes I was most excellent, and sometimes I wanted to slice the tongue right out of my mouth.
But no one dropped the class. No one cried or threw up or, at least from my perspective, embarrassed themselves. The last day of class each student shared how taking a public speaking class helped them or was going to help them as a person and a student. Most of their comments weren’t directed at me or at what a great teacher I was, but about the confidence and self-esteem that resulted from speaking in front of a group of people. Several students said giving a speech was the most courageous thing they had ever done.
I was proud of me and of them. I was part of something important in their lives. They might not remember me or my name. I don’t remember them by name. But I remember them as a group. I remember how they made me feel. I’m proud of myself, not as a teacher but as a person. I can be very critical in many areas of my life, but in that classroom, I found something specific and positive and real to say about every speech and every student. It was more than praise. It was a marvelous self-affirmation for all of us.