"Ladies and Gentlemen, As I Stand Before You Today........"
Did you ever have a time in school when the teacher called on you to give an oral report or presentation? Or a time when you had to just simply get up before the entire class and do something? Were you nervous? Were you afraid? Scared? Well, I wrote the book on that subject!
I was in Miss Margaret Clark's Distributive Education (DE) class in high school. Miss Clark had actually recruited me to be in her program. You see, as a sophomore, I became employed at the Safeway grocery store, when it was down on Chestnut Street. "Oh, how I loved that job" but that's another story! Seems Miss Clark went around one year and found out what kids worked where and invited some of us to join her DE program. It was late in my junior year when she extended the invitation. I accepted her offer and agreed to take DE as a senior.
School had not been in session long during my senior year when I discovered that I was onto something really good! Distributive Education counted for two and a half credits and your grades consisted of your employer's evaluation coupled with your classroom work. The classroom work was retail business related, a lot of common sense business stuff and fairly easy if you half-way applied yourself. If I remember correctly, you had four of the six, one hour class periods per day and went to your job the last two hours of the school day. What a deal! You got out of school early to go to a job for which you got paid! Yeah, I was onto something alright! I'd been fortunate to come into this DE thing and it was going to be a glorious and fun filled year!
Things went well until I hit a brick wall the last semester of the senior year! Miss Clark assigned each of us a subject to research and we were to give an oral presentation on that subject, to the entire class. Now, while in itself, that doesn't sound like too difficult an assignment, that is, unless you're not able to speak in front of the class. Yes, that was me, not able to speak in front of the class! I could remember getting up before the class in elementary school but then again, everybody wants to perform for the entire class in elementary school!
I don't remember at what point in time during my public education process that I discovered that I just simply could not get up before a group and speak! It was sometime in junior high school. You know the time, you've discovered the opposite sex, have become sensitive to how you are perceived by all your classmates and are really self conscious about most everything! Actually, I had stammered through a few oral book reports and had somehow managed to get by but I'd normally take a fat goose egg instead of getting up before the class. Unfortunately, this assignment by Miss Clark, counted as the semester test grade. That score averaged with your three six weeks reporting grades, was your semester grade. My three six week’s grades were in the low seventies and you average a zero with that and you have a failing grade. Thus, the loss of a couple of credits! Loss of the DE credit would mean that I would not be able to graduate. So as you can detect, this was no book report assignment that amounted to a daily grade that could be reconciled by averaging in a number of passing marks! This was a make it or break it assignment that meant graduation or no graduation
I had a friend that sat directly behind me in DE class named Joe. For whatever reason, we started calling him "Joe Baby"! Well, seems that Joe Baby was the only other student in the class that was refusing to give the speech. Joe Baby just simply was not the type individual to give a talk to the class! Luckily, Joe Baby and I sat at the back of the class on a row that was to be last to have to get up and speak. When Miss Clark reached me and Joe Baby, we both just politely refused to get up and speak! She went through the perils of what it meant grade wise to not participate. Neither of us flinched! Miss Clark was appalled, drenched in disbelief! Not taking class time to deal with the issue, Miss Clark asked us to stay after class, where she admonished both Joe Baby and me.
I could tell that Miss Clark was approaching the issue from the standpoint that a couple of guys were just being cantankerous and difficult. Not the case, not with me anyway! You see, I couldn't get up before the class. I had tried it a couple of times and I became petrified and would totally lose my voice. Not just a shakey voice, no voice! I literally could not speak before an audience. Made no difference whether I wanted to or not! Now, I don't know what Joe Baby's problem was I suspect a little bit of not wanting to and a little bit of not being able to do it! But I knew exactly what my problem was, I simply could not physically or mentally do it, period.....case closed! If it meant not graduating, so be it!
The days marched on and poor Miss Clark was wringing her hands with an emotional disbelief, she had spoken to both Joe Baby and me and had now notified the principal and my parents. Looking back, Miss Clark must have seen some sort of potential in me because she did not include Joe Baby when telling the principal, nor did she call Joe Baby's parents. Joe Baby was a second time junior and must have been accademically "red shirted" for his first few years in high school. Come to think of it, I don't think Joe Baby ever actually graduated.
I was called to the principal's office for consultation. As I recall the process from that point, my issue was being handled as if it were a disciplinary case. Here's a kid who is cocky, a legend in his own mind, who is going to show the world that he can defy authority! Of course, that was a different era and that's the way cases like that were treated. The truth was that, I was a kid that had a dire problem, both physically and emotionally, in not being able to speak before an audience. Punishment for this offense, stood to do absolutely nothing to eradicate my self consciousness and it did nothing to reinforce my mental state, that actually needed to be treated from a psychological standpoint. I gained nothing from my visit with the principal. My parents may have mentioned it but trying to reason with a seventeen year old high school senior, as you may remember, is a difficult chore for parents.
While I was prepared to take a zero on my semester test in DE, Miss Clark must have felt otherwise. Eventually, she would take Joe Baby and me aside and explain to us that if we would write out our speeches, she would agree to let us read it to a select group of six other students in another room. The speech was meant to be delivered, using no notes. Joe Baby and me, torn and tattered from the battle at hand, finally agreed to that maneuver. However, I knew that there still would be a problem on my part, because of the fact that I totally lost my voice and that my shaking and nervousness and my sweating palms and underarms could readily be detected by anyone observin
I wrote out about a one page summary of whatever it was that I was supposed to speak on. I assume Joe Baby did the same. At the beginning of class on the day of Armageddon, Joe Baby and I were asked by Miss Clark, to step into the classroom next door to our regular classroom. That room was not being utilized during that particular period. Then Miss Clark began to gather up six girls in the DE class to also take a seat in the room. Now, what was any better about this set up, I was beginning to wonder? Six girls.....??!!
The cute girls were the main one's I was embarrassed in front of in the first place! At this point Joe Baby and I were in this too deep to back out. I was first up! I walked to the front of the classroom, my legs so weak that I could hardly walk. The sheet of notebook paper that I had my speech written on, was shaking so badly, that it made a rattling noise that everyone could hear. I began reading, my voice shaking from the first word on! I had about two paragraphs on that sheet of notebook paper.
The paper was shaking so badly that I was having trouble keeping my place. My mouth was so dry that I could hardly open it to say anything. I stammered and stuttered and shook! Finally, by the grace of God, I made it through the first paragraph. At the end of the first paragraph, I knew it was over! I could no longer speak! Literally, I had no more voice! I was so frightened by this time, my lips were quivering and I was almost in tears! When you are that scared, your emotions will soon make you cry! I knew I couldn't just announce that "that's all I can read, so I will take my seat now", so I just simply quit and sat down. Joe Baby then got up and stammered through his little speech. Of course, I didn't hear a word of what Joe Baby said since I was still "rockin and reelin" in my head, from my ordeal. What little I read could not have warranted any kind of passing grade but Miss Clark gave us 70's anyway. Needless to say, I passed and graduated with my class.
I think Miss Clark was probably doing the best she could with what she thought the situation was all about. I don't think she ever had any intention to fail us but had to make us do something for the sake of the other class members who were able to get up before the class and speak. I marveled at how some of my classmates could so nonchalantly stand before the class and deliver their speech, having little or no nervousness at all,
You may say that through the years you have seen me speak before crowds and that I was not appearing to be nervous at all, no stage freight whatsoever! Well that's true and I've even tried, at times, to make myself nervous before speaking to a large audience, to no avail. How did I reach that point? Well, that's a whole other story and one that is very personal but maybe I'll tell it someday!
About the Author: Freddy Lessly is the retired director of the six county wide public transit authority that serves Grayson County along with five other counties. He has written other short stories, "You Ain't Gonna Believe This", "The Porch" & "It Can't Last Forever", to name a few. Lessly resides in Denison with his wife, Twila, and daughter, Bailey. He also has a grown son, Todd. Lessly presently works as a Bail Bondsman for North Texas Bail Bonds in Sherman.