I write because I can’t speak.
That’s not entirely true. If you speak to the people I’m close to, they’ll no doubt tell you I often talk far more than a human being has a right to, and about subjects that are best left in the taboo aisle of your local department store. It’s just in those social settings where I’m around a bunch of people I don’t know, or when I’m called upon to speak in public ... well, the stammering, perspiring and obtuse version of myself often makes a guest appearance.
That, or I just freeze.
It’s not entirely a brain lock I experience. On the contrary, there are usually thousands of little thoughts floating through my exhausted gray matter, and quite a few one-liners bouncing against my throat hoping to be released to an unknowing audience, but they are usually staved off by the sheer wall of panic blocking my vocal cords.
Remember in school when notes were regularly passed student-by-student around the classroom? Oh, I was Henny Youngman in those times. However, as soon as the teacher called on me for an answer I turned into George Bush Sr. at a Japanese state dinner.
You get the picture.
This has continued into my adult years. It’s easy for me to rail against injustices or praise the glories of Jameson from behind the safety net of my keyboard, but put me in front of a group of Lion’s Club members and I get more nervous than a coed who just found out her summer internship will be in Bill Clinton’s office.
Well, imagine the fear coursing through my veins last week as I prepared to face my ultimate test. We’ve all heard of “defining moments” in one’s life, those slices in time when a challenge is presented to each individual and it is up to that person to tackle his or her demon and rise to the test — or sink like a sitcom on NBC. My unique challenge was more frightening than a simple parachuted leap from a plane or standing up to that bully demanding my milk money.
I had to face children. A lot of them.
A friend convinced me to be a volunteer for Junior Achievement. The program is a partnership between businesses and schools, designed to bring some of “the real world” into the classroom, so students can gain some insight about business and learn how business techniques get put to us in practicality. My mission was to work with a fifth-grade class at Frankford Elementary School for a full week, about 45 minutes a day.
Let me preface what comes next by saying that, though I was admittedly nervous of what permanent damage I could inflict on the impressionable minds of fifth-grade students if I screwed this up, I also felt going into this that I had come a long way in terms of my fear of speaking to a group.
My father, who I often look to as a Yoda-like figure during times of stress in my life, has told me time and time again that if you go into a situation like this prepared, there’s nothing to fear. This echoes a mantra I heard a million times in the Marine Corps that proper planning prevents poor performance.
So, I prepared. And prepared and prepared and prepared. Monday morning came, and I was ready to face my fears, attack the situation with relish and become a positive force in the lives of these young people forever.
That was exactly 15 minutes before reality crept into the picture.
See, everything was fine when I first walked into the classroom. The teacher, Mr. Strong, greeted me with a kind smile and introduced me to the class. The students, as eager as any group I could have ever requested, warmly welcomed me into their classroom and I opened up the teacher’s book to guide myself through the lesson with the highlighted sections I had prepared.
Then, my head spun and my voice clutched.
Well, for about five minutes. See, for every item of information I would pop out with from the lesson plan, five questions would funnel in from the students — some having to do with what we were talking about, and some coming right out of left field. It was like the students would, oh, I don’t know ... digress.
I would appoint someone manager of a fictional company in an exercise, and the conversation would turn to who this individual could or could not fire. This would then devolve into firings throughout the classroom, even by students not involved in the exercise. The students learned by thinking outside the box, along with learning what the box contained. It was spectacular.
By wandering off track, I could see what the students felt was important, and the kids could apply what they were learning from the lesson plan into situations they could understand.
For five mornings the students and I went back and forth between digressions and the lesson plan. And for five mornings I felt like they actually learned something each time. I know I did. No, nothing about public speaking, I assure you I still stink on ice with that deal.
I learned that digressing is good. Maybe I’ll do it more often. Oh, and I learned that teaching is hard. I’ll probably do that less.