Thursday, April 26, 2012

2002 and 2012

Last night, I posted part of a project that I had done for biology as a sophomore in high school.  Sophomore year was a pivotal year in my becoming who I am today, and this had much to do with the class that I'd looked forward to the least: Speech.

I should explain.  When I entered my adolescent years, I became very self-conscious.  I was a wiry, pale, freckly kid with big glasses, braces, and red hair, and I stood out like a sore thumb at my predominantly blonde-haired school.  At least, I thought I stood out.  Anyway, my fear of being perceived as awkward and out of place actually made me somewhat awkward and out of place.  I was not particularly confident in myself, and preferred to spend most of my time hoping that people were not looking at me, wishing desperately that I could just blend in with the sea of blonde.

It seemed as though teachers seemed to derive some level of cruel enjoyment from embarrassing me.  How would they embarrass me?  By calling on me in class.  By asking me to read from the textbook.  By making me give speeches.  I guess I recognized on some level that it wasn't just me, that the teachers were asking my classmates to do the same things, but at the time it all felt very personal and it. was. humiliating.

Going back to the pale red-head thing, I can't exactly hide embarrassment all that well.  My face is usually at least some shade of red to begin with, and I blush for a wide variety of reasons beside embarrassment, but it seems that there's a specially purplish, blotchy hue of crimson reserved for when I feel embarrassed.  That was the mask I wore when I stammered out answers to questions, when I jumbled words while reading, when I tripped over words while delivering halting, shaky speeches.

Mercifully, my classmates didn't laugh at me, at least not in front of me.  My friends all knew that I didn't like giving speeches or receiving attention of any kind during class, and I did receive sympathy and encouragement from them.  I appreciated this, but felt like they were wasting their time in encouraging me--I'd never be comfortable speaking in front of people, and that was the end of the matter.

You will understand, then, why I was dreading a semester-long speech class.  At least other English classes allowed me to hide under the rock of my writing: I enjoyed writing, it came naturally to me and best of all, I could write without people watching me.  Speech, however, would require me to deliver a variety of presentations: informative, persuasive, biographical, chapel-style and worst of all, impromptu.  There would be no shelter, no hiding.  I'd be exposed and vulnerable.

I still remember my first speech and the way my legs quaked as I spoke and the way the consonants seemed to get all twisted up on the tip of my tongue before falling to the ground in a mangled heap that my listeners could only scratch their heads and guess at.

I remember my second speech being much the same, though by that time I'd resigned to my fate and my fear was replaced with a strange numbness.

My third speech was different--it was a biographical speech and we could choose the historical figure.  I remembered my World History teacher mentioning a Roman Emperor who went insane and tried to make his horse a governor.  So, I researched Caligula and for the first time, I felt as though I had a really interesting (and really disturbing) subject to share with my audience.  As I wrote my speech, my typical feelings of anxiety and nervousness were replaced with excitement--I couldn't believe that a guy like Caligula had ever ruled over people and I wanted my classmates to share that same disbelief.  I knew that the textbooks avoided Caligula and began to see it as my duty to teach my classmates that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

I even used this quote by Lord Acton to open my speech.  I still stumbled over some words, and I still shook a little bit, but as I got into my speech, I realized that my classmates were actually listening.  Not only listening, but they seemed positively hooked on every word, laughing at all the right moments, gasping at all the right moments.  When I finished my speech, there was applause--not the half-hearted obligatory applause that happens like a reflex after sitting through, but not really hearing a speech, but hearty, genuine, sustained applause.  It was a tradition in the class that after every speech, we'd vote for the best of the bunch.  That time, I won "best of the bunch."

From that point on, I saw speeches not as a bright spotlight shining on me like a lamp on the face of a suspect in an interrogation room, but instead as an opportunity for me to shed light on new and interesting information for my audience.  It wasn't about me; it was about them!  This revelation made all the difference in the world, and changed the trajectory of my high school career: plays, musicals, solos in choir, emceeing banquets, leading pep assemblies... such opportunities became my life later in high school, and I became, in many ways, the face and mouth-piece of my class.  So, almost exactly 8 years ago, when I found out that my classmates had selected me to be the class speaker at graduation, what would have been my worst nightmare several years before had become an honor of the highest caliber.

Fast-forwarding to today...  Today was a special day.  I found out that the Seniors, who took my Humanities, English and Bible classes last year, had chosen me to be their graduation speaker.  It is a privilege and a blessing to be able to address this group, for whom I care deeply, at their graduation ceremony in June.  As my mind races through potential ideas, I cannot help but think back to where I started 10 years ago.  What my reflection has reminded me: I'm not in the spotlight--it's my chance to serve the class of 2012; to teach and to challenge them as an entire captive audience one last time.  By God's grace, I am a teacher today, and have this wonderful opportunity.  I must begin in prayer.

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