Tuesday, August 21, 2012

THE FIRST WORD – Death by Rote


Looking out at the audience—200 or so of my schoolmates and teachers—I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. My self-consciousness was reprieved, at least for a few minutes, by our standing for Men of Harlech, one of the traditional, “manly” songs we sang every day at morning assembly. Just another device for molding us preppies into proper young men.
Onward! 'tis the country needs us,
He is bravest, he who leads us
Honor's self now proudly heads us… 
About halfway through the rousing lyrics, the anxiety that had been resting a foot on my chest stepped on with both feet as I realized that my speech was coming up next on the program.

The anxiety that had been resting a foot on my 
chest stepped on with both feet...

The Smith Cup Competition involved speaking in front of an audience. First-round speeches, delivered to just your English teacher and ten or fifteen classmates, were mandatory for all students. Contestants could either write their own speeches or borrow something from literature, sports or entertainment; the point was it had to be memorized and delivered without notes.

My speech had survived the first round, and here I was in the semi-finals, along with two other contestants that day, about to speak in front of the whole school.

The onset of fear is a fascinating experience. If it’s the kind you get to think about for a while, your vision—in fact, all your awareness—narrows. You lose sight of those around you; time grinds along in slow motion, counting down to your doom.

Even more distressing, your ability to place your situation into perspective vanishes. To say your predicament becomes the most important thing in the world would be an understatement; it’s the only thing.

That was my state of mind when the headmaster, Mr. Reed, introduced the first speaker. I tried to at least look like I was paying attention to my opponent, but the storm brewing in my psyche wasn’t about to be put off. The other kid’s words sounded like he was mumbling them down a very deep hole…and I was at the bottom.

I prayed something would come to me; it didn’t.

I’d watched helplessly as my state of mind had withered from concern to dread, and then to utter terror. I was now so consumed by my fear that, my God, I have no idea what the first—or any—words of my speech are! And—that’s right—I have no notes!

I could barely hear the applause for the first contestant above the shrieking of my panic. He bowed stiffly and sat down, turning to look at me, all self-satisfied, just as Mr. Reed stood and pronounced my death sentence: “And now, our second semi-finalist, Jeffrey Willius, will deliver his original speech, 'Water, Our Most Precious Resource.'”

My brain flailed for a clue to how my speech began, or for even something I could say off the cuff. About then, I would have settled for the ABC song if it, too, hadn’t eluded me. I walked as slowly to the lectern as I could without drawing any more attention to my plight (as if that were possible). I prayed something would come to me; it didn’t.

Have you ever studied someone who’s terrified? There are several clues: the tortured body language, the pale, drawn expression, the copious sweating. But the biggest give-away is the Adam’s apple. Mine pumped in vain for the slightest trace of saliva, in syncopation, it seemed, with my pounding heartbeat.

So there I stood, in front of all my schoolmates and all my teachers. The floor was mine. I imagined 200 sets of drumming fingers, impatient sighs and, worst of all, guys turning to one another and whispering “What a loser!”

The good news was that I finally thought of something to say. The bad news? It was the very 
end of my speech.

The good news was that, after what seemed like a full minute of that sticky silence, I finally thought of something to say. The bad news? It was the very end of my speech.
“So, in conclusion, clean, potable water is…gulp…will be the central challenge of the coming century. What can I, what can all of us, do to make sure…”
At last, my ordeal came to an end…no beginning or middle, but at least an end. My friends and teachers were kind enough not to make light of the new record I’d set for the Smith Cup’s shortest speech. But sometimes even silence cuts deep.



Chas said...

Jeff: What a painful memory. I have no recollection of the event, so I must not have been there. One of my most painful memories is when I dropped a heavy package of empty boxes over the edge of the conveyor belt, going between floors at my father's factory, when I was 18, and the package of boxes jumped off the track, hit the hanging flourescent lights below, and landed right smack in front of three women working on the production line. For them it was like the sky was falling, broken glass, crashing... It was my mistake completely. And I rushed downstairs with a feeling of utter helplessness and humiliation. I was the boss's son! If you'd been there, you would have made a joke. And if I'd been at your "Potable water" performance, I would have smiled and said: "That was a pretty good speech. Very concise."

Jeffrey Willius said...

Oh, Chas, my friend -- how kind you are to have forgotten the most mortifying moment of my life! For some reason, your "very concise" comment reminds me of that great Woodie Allen quote: "Ay-y-y, the food there is terrible...and such small portions!"
I don't think you told me about your box dropping incident. I'd either have made a joke or looked around at all the witnesses and asked "Who's the new guy?" ;-)

Chas said...

Right you are. My Dad never said a thing to me about the boxes but he had the maintainence guys install a metal grate just below the conveyor belt just in case I did it again.......which I didn't. Which reminds me of one the best lessons you can teach someone who screws up, and that is: One good thing will come out of this, you'll never do that again..... Good luck with the book!!!

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