In Praise of Public Speaking

In Praise of Public Speaking

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. public speaking.png

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.

Lonely Girl

 

When I look at my day now as a personal trainer, there are times when I can’t believe it is me. I pretty much work out all day or help others workout. I am not a natural athlete, but somewhere along the way things changed.

I never liked to go outside and play. I had an awkward walk, was uncoordinated and had no balance. Recess was painful. I was usually the last one picked for any team sport.  I don’t think Charlie Brown existed when I was growing up, but he and I have a lot in common.

Other kids watched the clock waiting to hear the recess bell. They would be bouncing off their seats as the teacher said, “Wait. Put your books in your desk. Then you can go.” It was a stampede to see who could get out the door the fastest.

If the recess game was softball, I knew my name would not get called. The rules were the team captain picked one boy then one girl, and everyone had to play. When I was the only one left, the captain would sigh and wave me over and say, “Okay, we’ll take her.” Like he had a choice, but hearing those words. Well, it made it worse.

girl on playground
“Lonely Girl”

 

Three outs happened fast, and I usually didn’t have to go to bat. When I did walk to the plate, bat in hand I knew what to expect. Taunts from the team in the field: “Easy out! Easy out!”  My teammates would groan loudly. It couldn’t get much worse than this.

When the recess game was dodge ball, I thought I might actually have a chance to stay in the game. I mean dodge ball, come on. Just don’t get hit by the frigging ball. How hard is that! But I was like a fence post cemented in the dirt. A target. The person with the ball always went for me because I was, once again, an easy out.

The other kids made it look so easy. Running. Laughing. Weaving in and out around each other’s sweating bodies. I was dizzy watching all the activity. It was like I was the maypole, the flag pole and everyone and everything else whirled around me.

My brain was busier than my body. “Run right, run left!” I would start to move, or at least I thought I was starting to move, and then the blonde girl with the perky pony tail would run in front of me. Giggling, she was always giggling. The cute boy holding the red dimpled dodge ball aimed for her, fully intending to miss. The ball hit me instead. I didn’t groan or squeal or make any of the noises the other kids made when they were “out.” I just turned and walked out of the circle.

Usually, I didn’t have to go outside for recess. When I said I needed to finish my homework or was writing a story or reading a book and wanted to stay inside, I think the teachers felt sorry for me. It was such a relief to escape the horrors of the playground.

In the sixth grade I read the poem “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham. The words gave me hope. I don’t know why because I certainly wasn’t going to make my fellow dodge ball players think any more highly of me. But I read and re-read the poem, imagining myself in a more inclusive future.

“He drew a circle that shut me out- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!”