Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Public Speaking Humiliation

In case I have to ever defend myself in a court of law (or on Oprah), I will say that this is mostly-true-to-memory, but is most certainly not 100% true-to-life.  For example, I do not do ventriloquism.    Some names (but not my own) have been changed to protect the innocent.  It is an excerpt from a "puberty memoir" that I am writing.

Now you know why I wasn't popular.

Talking in Tongues

I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a public speaker.   From early on, as a result of my prolific reading I had a pretty good vocabulary that could impress the adults in the crowd; I could spin a story about myself, pulling graphic, tantalizing details out of thin air (read: I could lie); I could tell a mean joke thanks to the “Pretty Good Joke” books that my parents kept for bathroom reading; and I was good at making fart sounds and burping noises.  All in all, I felt I was equipped for a job in front of the pulpit, inspiring millions with my message of salvation.

It was indeed my aim to be an evangelist, Billy Graham style with a feminine touch, but I knew I needed to start with slightly humbler beginnings.  When my private Mennonite high school announced that 10th graders would be participating in a public speaking contest, I knew I was up to the job.  After several days of mulling over what would prove most compelling for a speech in front of a panel of traditional, conservative Mennonite teachers and parents, I decided to write one on the importance of having good manners: it would include my talent for mimicking body functions using my armpit and substituting obnoxious sounds for obscenities that seemed to come from other parts of the room.  (I had been honing my ventriloquism act while most kids were trying out for sports teams and practicing piano.)

I set to work about two days before the due date and about a month and a half after the announcement had been made. Within about half an hour, I had what I considered a masterpiece.  I was all atwitter just reading it.  Students would be sure to fall off their desk chairs at the hilarity of it all.  And the judges?  Well, their tightly-wound buns would be unspinning and those too-tight polyester dress pants would be splitting their seams.  I couldn’t wait!

Rather than work on perfecting my speech for the tenth grade student body, I used the crumpled first draft, practiced four or fewer times in front of the bathroom mirror while trying to pop some pesky pimples at the same time, and pronounced myself ready.  After all, if I was going to be an evangelist, I’d have to be pretty good at charming the crowd without too much practice.  I mean, with all that work of saving souls, I imagined there wouldn’t be much time left for speech writing.  And besides, charisma was part of the job description.  I believed I had it.

And have it I did!  I went from strength to strength.  I first presented to my homeroom class along with my peers.  It was quickly evident that I was the only one cut out for the role of evangelist in that classroom.  Oh sure, students had index cards and facts and transitional words like “therefore’ and “in conclusion,” but there was no fire behind the words.  No charisma.  No chutzpah.  I had ventriloquism, farts, burps and illusions of bathroom doings.  I had cheap thrills to give away and they were funny.

Granted, some of the students, particularly the boys, in my 10th grade homeroom were immature, bordering on blowing-your-nose-in-your-hand-and-using-it-as-hair-gel immature, but we were a match made in heaven.  The boys hooted and hollered, and when it was announced by anonymous vote (the only way a geeky girl like me would ever be able to win anything), that I was clearly the winner, I was not in the least bit surprised.  The most academic, the most ravishing, the most popular girls in 10th grade had nothing on my speechifying gifts.

The story doesn’t end here.  Oh, no.  I went on to handily win the competition between the other three homerooms in 10th grade – their winners being the “brainiacs” who had memorized and polished and practiced their speeches until they were nothing but regurgitated facts, figures and transitional verbs.  Even the adult judges had to agree that at least I had got the audience fired up after the snooze sessions on “Why We Have Recently Learned That Smoking Endangers Health,”  Christ’s Seven Step Plan For Teenagers,” and “The Mennonite Diaspora.”

This meant that I was bound for the district championships.  Obviously by this time I was cockier than a rooster who had had copulated with all the hens in his coop MULTIPLE TIMES.  I went from being one of the nerds to being the cool kid with voice throwing gifts who could make it sound like little Miss Popular and Pretty over in the corner had a nasty case of gas.  It was a week or three of pure heaven.

I was so enjoying my recently-found celebrity status that somehow I completely forgot that I was meant to be stepping-up my speech; practicing, refining it.  I was going to be running with the big dogs: the best 10th grade orators in all of Abbotsford school district.

The day before the big district competition I got a vague discomfort in my stomach and a niggling in the back of my brain that I should be doing something.  What’s that?  Practicing?  Well, maybe.  Just a bit.  I conceded that another run-through or two might not be such a bad idea.  I even went so far as to practice in the full-length mirror in the hallway.  First, I needed to gauge my entrance, and to be sure I stood at such an angle that was most flattering for my stocky frame.  That brought on a whole new set of worries.  What was I going to wear?

I abandoned the practice session for an impromptu rummage through the closet and came out victorious with my new, shiny-buttoned overalls, a rocking plaid shirt and my mother’s high heeled clogs that were a bit too big, but who was going to notice?  I looked bitchin’!

I went to bed smug and self-satisfied, assured of wrapping the competition up with a bow and taking home the prize.  What’s more, my notes fit perfectly in the pocket of my bib overalls.  Not that I needed them.  I’d just have them handy in case.  I knew my clever little speech backwards and forwards.

The next morning I woke up and decided to make my outfit a bit jauntier yet by creating a ponytail on the side of my head.  Mix it up a bit.  Square Peg.  Round Hole.  Rebel.  I loved it.  I click-clacked to school in the clogs, only stumbling once on the way to carpool.

My English teacher drove Clive Driedger (the runner up) and me to Abby Senior after morning homeroom.  The class wished me luck with a hoot and a holler and as those sounds tinkled away into the distance, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be hearing them again.

I sat in the back seat and ran through my notes while Clive engaged Ms. (She was a liberated Mennonite feminist!) Klassen in a philosophical discussion about the rapture and did she think that it was okay for Christians to get cremated.  The car smelled of scented tissues and wet dog.  It made me sleepy.  I had a bit of a snooze and dreamt of bringing home the coveted cup.  I wondered if I could make my way all the way to the 10th grade WORLD championships and if there was such a thing.  Surely, I’d have a shot at the big times.

My dreamy state dissipated immediately upon stepping into the auditorium of the high school.  There must have been 300 or more people present, most of them adults.  Would they be capable of appreciating the finer nuances of my speech, I wondered.   Where were all the 10th grade gum-chewing, fart-faking boys who would have been cheering me along to victory? 

Way, way down the centre aisle, at the very front of the daunting auditorium, were two tables, with five chairs each.  As I clopped down the aisle toward the stage, I felt deeply ashamed.  It wasn’t a wedding, of course, but suddenly, walking down the aisle in my farm girl overalls and clunky mother’s clogs, I knew that something was amiss.  I had made a fatal error in judgment.  Cockiness had superseded sense.  I was the wrong person in the wrong place in the wrong clothes making the wrong speech.  I wanted to turn and run, but my pride and the ridiculously large clogs prevented me from making an escape.  They clopped loudly down the wooden aisle, echoing into the cavernous space.

The other tenth graders that greeted me with eyes either askance and averted, might just as well have been stock traders on Wall Street.  Suits. Ties.  Blazers.  Pumps.  Shiny. Polished. Combed.  Automotans.

And then there was me: my limp pony tail dangling from the left side of my head was an apt metaphor for my feelings in that moment.  It wasn’t pretty. I was looking down the pike of a disaster and there was no averting it.  For all my lack of insight, I knew, even then, that the only way out of a situation is to go through it.  And so I did.

I listened to one speech after the other, each more polished and professional than the last.  Students paused at the right moments, ahemed and aha-ed in just the right places, and with effortless flicks of the wrist, moved from one fresh cue card to the next.  Each of them was tight and practiced, like a first class circus act, only minus the entertainment.

Even in the depths of my humiliation, I couldn’t help noticing that not one of the students possessed the charisma that I had and there wasn’t an iota of spontaneity.  I have no doubt that every last one of those candidates is now the CEO of a major company or is managing hedge funds or entrepreuring their way out of paper sacks.  I will also wager a million dollars that not one of them is an evangelist or even a traveling salesperson.  They were all yawn-worthy.  You could call my speech a whole lot of things, but you could not call it that.

And so, when my name was called, I summoned my courage and charisma, and took to the podium, pulling my sodden A-4 crumpled paper out of the bib of my overalls in case I should need it.

I took a deep breath, looked out at the crowd of conservative, judgmental folks eying me with trepidation and put the notes down.  I wouldn’t need these.  These people were in dire need of entertainment, and I was about to give them a run for their money.

I burped.  I farted.  I simulated orgasms.  (Okay, that was When Harry Met Sally, but I do recall doing something that merged on being nearly as inappropriate.)  I told my lewd jokes and made sure people knew how NOT to behave at the dinner table or in front of distinguished company. 

I felt my face burning red throughout my impassioned speech, but I forged on, ad-libbing and making full use of the stage.  Why use a podium when there was an entire stage to be exploited?  The clogs echoed as I stomped around, vividly waving my arms.  In my avid gesticulating, one of the buttons on my overalls came undone causing the strap to slip down over my shoulder.

Ladies and gentlemen, the speech was well and truly a disaster in most every sense of the word.  I have no recollection of how it ended or if I even did end it, but I found myself back in my seat after eight minutes, approximately three minutes over the five minute deadline.  The applause was muted to say the least.  After the exhilaration of my one-woman show, I was now a limp, shuddering mess whose one clog had someone been lost in the exodus from the stage to my seat.

There was a ten minute recess while the judges conferred and people made a beeline for the bathrooms.  I skulked to the stage steps to retrieve my clog, clipped my overall strap into place and sat with my head down, hands folded in my lap.  The animated clown had metamorphed into a lifeless ventriloquist’s doll.  That’s what I felt and looked like.  My eyes stayed down, even while the judges came to the stage to make their pronouncements.

Readers. I have no surprises for you at this point in the story.  I think you can guess the ending.  Well, almost.  I didn’t come last.  Well, not exactly.  I placed ninth out of tenth.  Because two people tied for seventh.

I think this is the outfit I wore, only WITH clogs!

As an addendum: in 2008 I won the Toastmasters championship for public speaking in China - yes, I speak better English than a billion Mandarin speaking folks.  Now that's saying something!  

I did learn some lessons on that fateful day.  My biggest lesson, surprisingly, was not that I need to change so very much but that I need to stay true to myself.  I am who I am and people seem to like it okay.  (I do, however, wear properly fitted shoes when on stage, I never wear my hair in a ponytail on the side of my head, and I have given up the overalls.)

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