Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Speech competition gone bad

In his column on Detroit's surprising 19-14 victory over Washington on Sunday, Yahoo writer Doug Farrar references the beloved children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

I couldn't make it past Farrar's first paragraph. Just seeing that book title brings me back 20 years, to a Saturday afternoon, to a day of humiliation and a subpar speaking performance. In seventh grade, our speech class teacher - who doubled as the speech team coach - convinced me to join the club, luring me in with promises of travel and fame and the idea that all my friends were doing it.

I'm not sure what he originally saw - or heard - that made him think I'd be a standout member of the speech team. Maybe it was readings in church. Whenever our class had to conduct various parts of the Mass on a Sunday morning, I invariably ended up doing the readings. Partly it was because many of the kids simply couldn't string four sentences together while reading silently, much less publicly. Partly it was because I came from a long line of church readers, as both of my parents often trotted up to the microphone to read aloud Paul's various letters to the Corinthians or a message in Philippians. Being a kid reader during these Sundays was a position of repute. Let others bear the gifts. Give me the microphone.

I acquitted myself well during those outings. And I had no fear of public speaking at that age. The innocence of youth.

By the time I got to seventh grade, I wasn't quite as confident in my public speaking. There was no traumatic incident and no embarrassing voice-cracking in front of hundreds of bored Catholics. But I was now more aware of the fact I was speaking out loud. I was more aware of the fact people were judging, silently (this could perhaps be called paranoia, not sure).

Still, I eagerly agreed to join the speech team. My category involved reading a story aloud. I didn't have to give an original speech, simply had to interpret another writer's work. No problem.

The book I chose: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst. My coach told me it was a great option, as the book provided lots of humor.

In an ideal world - a world of elite speech team members - I would have memorized the entire text. Unfortunately, I did have to rely on notes, although I committed most of the story to memory.

At my first competition, I vomited. It was in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, a small town best known for being home to the least-intimidating nickname in the history of organized sports: The Awesome Blossoms. Yes, they're Blossoms, the school admitted, but they're also awesome.

The projectile vomiting had little to do with my performance or the pressure. At least that's what I told myself at the time, attributing the sickness to too many candy bars. In truth, I was already starting to succumb to the pressure. At the competition, each person gave their little speech in front of the other participants and the judge, who was usually a coach from another school. An obvious conflict of interest, which appeased me whenever they gave me scores and notes that might as well have been summed up as, "Well, you tried hard."

I tried. Damn it, I tried. I emoted. I wanted my audience to feel the pain of Alexander's terrible day. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, I wanted my peers to picture the poor kid's pain and disgust. He wants to move to Australia, I wanted my audience to convince their parents to move them Down Under. They chuckled politely. The judge noted that I did have some potential, whatever that meant.

Each competition was the same as the last. Toward the end I was just counting down the events, waiting for the season to be over. Then I could return to my shell and I'd only have to worry about public speaking whenever my religious ed classmates drafted me to do an annual reading.

The final event was at Mankato East High School. This was a big school, a huge regional competition, where we'd give several readings of our work. A chance to shine.

What better place to humiliate myself?

Coming from a small school I could navigate with my eyes closed, I wasn't prepared for the largeness of East's facility. I was a wide-eyed tourist staring up at the skyscrapers, struggling to find my bearings, and my designated classroom. I went from floor to floor, occasionally asking other dumfounded or unhelpful students if they knew where my room was. Panicked, I was now in the middle of my own terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, but I was too young, too scared and too rattled to appreciate the irony.

Finally I found my room. I burst in, sweating.

And walked in on a young girl with glasses giving her speech. She stopped. All of the eyes in the room went from her to me, and there was anger in those eyes. I sheepishly apologized and found my seat. When I glanced back at the judge, the woman continued to stare at me and shook her head side to side, as if she'd just been exposed to a heretofore unknown insect, which repulsed and fascinated her. I wasn't exactly sure what I'd done wrong, but I knew it must have been something bad.

Should I not have just barged in like that? Was that wrong? It was my first year of speech competition, I wasn't aware of all the Byzantine protocols that governed the competition.

When my turn came, I delivered the same performance I gave every other time. Was it Pacino-in-Godfather II quality? No. But I expected the same laughter, condescending or otherwise.

But the audience's reaction was different. No polite chuckles. No flirty smiles from any of the girls. No laughs from the judge. It was like I was reading the upcoming lunch menu for Mankato East High School. A seasoned standup comedian could have turned this to his advantage, by perhaps insulting the audience and storming off, maintaining some semblance of dignity while simultaneously losing it.

I, a frightened 12-year-old, simply shuffled back to my desk.

Once everyone had completed their speech, we collected our results from the judge.


It looked like a ransom note, only filled with more anger.

She provided the needed number scores, but there were no other words. No encouraging messages that I should stick with this speech thing. No admitting that she chuckled at the way I empathized with Alexander's troubles. Just those three sentences, written in type that was larger than the top letter of an eye doctor's chart.

Had I been wrong in walking in? Yes. Did I deserve such a castigation? Perhaps. In my defense, I couldn't hear a thing through the door, so I had no idea of knowing if anyone was speaking, and the glass on the door was that milky glass that's impossible to see through. Was I supposed to discern movement behind that and then pop in? Excuses? I had excuses. But obviously I was in the wrong.

However, her condemnation broke something in me. I felt like vomiting again, this time because of the written whipping I'd just received. Back home, my parents wanted to see the judges' notes. I showed them a couple of them, ones I'd given in different classrooms before my fateful encounter. Those ones had the same scores and polite notes as always They didn't see that bad one. No one did. On the ride back to Janesvlle I crumpled it up, then tore it into a dozen pieces.

It was my final speech competition of the season. It was my final speech competition ever. At least I went out in a blaze of failure.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

Might I suggest a job as a public address announcer? All you do is say who scored, who the foul was on, etc. Though the vomit going onto the court may not go over well.