Do you know what the number one fear is among Americans? No, it’s not death. Death is number two. Number one is public speaking. Do you know what that means? At a funeral, more people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. – Jerry Seinfeld
My parents, upstanding citizens of the community that they are, are currently in the throes of judging the local 4H speech competitions. I guess speech giving is a big part of 4H. As my parents sit over the dinner table and compare notes about the weekend’s speeches, it’s gotten me to reminiscing about my own time taking part in speech competitions. It makes me go down to my room and dig out the one and only award I’ve ever one for my speeches.
I always had a weird love of giving speeches. Whenever a teacher would stand up and say, “OK, you’re going to be giving your final report as an oral presentation,” the whole class would groan. Except for me, who’d be grinning like an idiot. “You’re a performer,” my head teacher in Japan remarked after observing one of my classes. I loved taking drama class in junior high. But then, my high school didn’t offer it, and in university, the scheduling of drama classes always conflicted with some math course I needed. Speeches and oral presentations were the closest I could get to being on stage again. I’m sure it has quite a bit to do with my current career path.
Speeches first became a big deal in the sixth grade. We were given the task of writing and delivering a speech to the class. At that time, I was very deep into aviation, so I prepared a speech about helicopters. I even did quite a bit of research into the physics of helicopters and how they fly and all that. I stood up before the class, with a few helicopter pictures I had dug up for props, and poured my heart into it. My teacher even let me go one minute over time, just because he was so enraptured by it. We hoped it would be a sign of things to come!
It was in grade 8 when we were first told of the school-division wide speech competition. To choose our finalist we were going to have our very own competition in our class. Number one was to be our representative for the division-wide speech competition. I remember the topic of our speech was to be a person we admired. Now, sadly, junior high was when I was in my deepest, darkest Trekkie phase. I couldn’t do a project like this without referencing Star Trek in some way. So, the person I admired the most was…Gene Roddenberry. Ye gods, it was horrible. I came in seventh in the class. Number one went to my chief academic rival. The one person she admired the most was…her conscience. It was the kind of “outside the box” creative twist that my junior high English teacher really went for.
One year later, grade 9, I knew it was my chance for redemption. Sadly, I forget what my speech was about. But I do remember that it was full of anger, full of passion, and, since Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country had just come out, it was referenced heavily. I did a lot better. This time, I ranked second in the class. Once again, my chief academic rival beat me.
I think, in the grade 9 contest, what did me in was the extemporaneous speaking. For those who have never known the pleasure of a junior high speech competition, let me explain extemporaneous speaking. You are given a deck of cards. On each card is a one-word topic. You randomly select a card from the deck. You are then given two minutes to prepare a two minute speech on that topic. It always did in the best of us.
But this time, I had a strategy! Our junior high English teacher had taken the unprecedented step of letting us know what two-thirds of the topics in the deck were! So, I prepared speeches for those two-thirds. And, of course, they all had to do with Star Trek.
I don’t think I lost because my speeches weren’t as good as those of my academic rivals. I think I lost because my English teacher was trying to say, “Enough with the damn Star Trek already!” But, he did have kind words for me. He told me that, whereas most of classmates simply read their speeches, I had already mastered the difficult task of talking to the audience. So that was cool.
But I was off to that pee-pee soaked heck-hole known as Seba Beach. Grade 10 brought in a whole new ballgame. And I learned the rules of that ballgame quite quickly. Instead of a speech competition within our class, a handful of finalists were chosen for the school’s annual “speech night.” From there, the winners were chosen by a panel of invited judges, and then the winners went onto the school-division-wide finals. But, there was still a competition within our class to choose the speech night finalists.
And, in what become a joke within the community was the fact that the speech topics had not changed in 15 years. The grade 10s did “Canada in comparison to the USA,” the grade 11s did “Canada in the year 2010,” and the grade 12s did “Canada’s role in the global community.” All right! I was pumped, I was primed. Given my showing at Entwistle, and the fact that there was no one at Seba Beach in my academic league, I knew I was a shoo-in.
So, naturally, in grade 10, I was seventh. Again. My speech compared and contrasted the television industries of the USA and Canada. I think it was beyond the head of Mr. Turnbull, my grade 10 English teacher and the school principal. Oh, well. Most of my classmates were destined to live out the rest of their high school years in the 23 and 33 classes. Let them have their moment in the spotlight.
Grade 11. Now we’re in the game! Canada in the year 2010. Mine was a bleak, grimy tale of eventual assimilation by the USA. But it was good enough to get me into Speech Night! I once again poured my heart into it for Mom, Dad, and the panel of judges. But, the judges thought my speech was a little too bleak. Second place again.
Grade 12. The big show. All or nothing. If I didn’t win here, I’d never win at all. For the topic of Canada’s role in the global community, I again when the bleak and grimy route. This time, though, I did a totally insane, off-the-wall piece about Canada’s ideal role: that of a warmonger nuking everything in sight. I submitted the rough draft to my teacher, Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson looked at it and sighed. He pulled me aside. “Mark,” he said, “If it was anyone else, I’d tell them to write something else. But I know you, I know your skills, and I know what message you’re trying to send. You have the talent to pull this off.”
And really, what I was trying to pull off was rebellion. The speech night had grown bland and listless. It was a model of school conformity. And this model of conformity was epitomized in one phrase. “Good evening, madam chairman, honourable judges, ladies and gentlemen.” It upset me that we had to say that. It always elicited chuckles from the audience at Speech Night. From the first grade, where cute little six year olds uttered it at the start of their speeches, up to grade 12, where people got a little more creative and said it at the end of their introductory paragraphs. We simply had to say it. Yup, I was going to rebel, against the blandness, the mediocrity, madam chairman and the honourable judges.
I made it through the classroom competition with ease. And, there I was again, at Speech Night, in front Mom, Dad, a hundred other moms and dads, and madam chairman and the honourable judges. There was a horrified silence in the crowd as I delivered my speech with anger and passion. I delivered the ending, which was a variation on “Ha ha! Gotcha!” and they erupted in thunderous applause.
After my opponent delivered his speech, one of the judges stood up and began giving his speech about why the winner was chosen. “When we first heard the winner’s speech,” he said, “our initial reaction was ‘Is this guy nuts?’” I knew right away I had won.
Needless to say, I was on a high. My parents were boasting. Teachers and students were heaping their praise upon me. And then, Mr. Turnbull came up to me. As I already mentioned, Mr. Turnbull was the school principal. He was a morbidly obese Australian. He wasn’t even a real teacher. He was a lawyer by trade. When he grew sick of the law, he discovered some loophole in the ATA regulations that said, when it came to being a high school principal, a law degree will do in lieu of a teaching degree. He was coming over to me. And he was livid.
As I said, my theme was rebellion. And, in order to rebel, I went out of my way not to utter those sacred words, “Good evening madam chairman, honourable judges, ladies and gentlemen.” I briefly considered saying it backwards to end my speech (“Ladies and gentlemen, honourable judges, madam chairman, good evening.”) but eventually decided against it. Nope. Everyone was equal in my eyes. I opened my speech with a big smile and a friendly, “Hi, everyone!”
And that’s what Mr. Turnbull was pissed off about. “I noticed that you didn’t say it,” he said. “Bear in mind, that that was a serious breach of protocol. Why the judges didn’t disqualify you, I’ll never know. But, always remember. You did not really win.” Thanks to the high of the moment, I brushed him off quite easily.
Besides, there was enough disappointment in the days ahead. Only then did I learn that the high school division of the school-division-wide speech contest had long been abolished. I was going to have no big battle with the best of Parkland. This was as high as I was going. A couple years after I graduated, Mr. Turnbull was finally forced into retirement. Speech Night got its much-need overhaul, and the high school division was axed, to bring it in line with the school division’s speech contest.
Sadly, here in the real world, being the winner of a high school speech contest doesn’t win you a lot of respect. When my boss in Japan was given the task of delivering a speech to a bunch of head office guys, I offered to coach her, but she angrily declined. “Speeches are done differently in Japan,” she growled. She growled a lot.
But, very soon, I will be cleaning out my closet and throwing out a lot of my awards from the high school years. My plaque commemorating my winning the Grade 12 Speech Night is one I’ll never be tossing, though. It took my five years to win it. I earned it.