Off the cuff


My first day of high school happened in seventh grade. It was a pretty autumn morning when I set foot on campus.

I learned so much that day. How to lie on the spot. What spontaneity can bring. My ultimate destiny.

Our junior high school was competing in a speech tournament, the kind of nerdy affair reserved for a bookish few. Most of the team members were already set, having prepared speeches for the appropriate categories.

But they were one short: No one was competing in impromptu speaking.

So I was asked to join. And why not? No one in our group had experience in making up three- to five-minute speeches, so we had nothing to lose.

I didn’t have much time to practice, or even bone up on the rules. The competitors would be handed randomly selected topics, given 60 seconds to prepare, then give speeches to a panel of judges.

What exactly had I gotten myself into? I was all of 12 years old, not one prone to make heartfelt toasts or wax eloquent about defense policy.

The high school was a few miles away, but in a rundown neighborhood. The school bus rolled past small shabby houses on a quiet street and up a narrow driveway. The school itself wasn’t much more to look at. We were coming from one of the newest schools in a wealthy suburb — our junior high had hallways that stretched uphill crazy distances, with a nice gym and band room and science labs.

This school had peeling paint, and a tennis court without a net, and an abandoned lunchroom.

Stepping off the bus, I didn’t realize it yet, but this would be alma mater, my new world someday.

The organizers shuffled us off to different classrooms for competition. I awaited my turn, a little nervous but without a lot on the line. I would receive a topic on a 3×5 index card, something like “The importance of citizenship.” I would scribble out three main points and figure out a quick way to flesh them out. Maybe I’d have some kind of intro and some kind of closer.

That 60 seconds whizzes by fast. And then, you’re on.

I tried to pace myself, not getting too excited or too rambly. I didn’t want to come up short, and I definitely didn’t want the five-minute cutoff to interrupt my last point.

I got through that first round OK, and a couple more rounds. I don’t remember the first few topics, but I do remember the final one: “Why I love comic books.”

Uh oh, I had never read comics books. My nerd cred was in serious jeopardy.

But my friend Biff was an avid comic collector. I drew upon my familiarity with his obsession in preparing my notes.

I made a point about how they promoted literacy. And about three more minutes of bullshit.

It worked — I won first place.

speechtrophy.jpgI couldn’t believe it. I’m pretty sure my team couldn’t believe it. We had entered almost as a joke, and we came away champions.

While waiting for the results, I had glimpses into the life of this high school, one reserved for the gifted students in the county. They roamed freely between classes. They had a pool table in their student lounge. They were a community of outcasts, misfits and brainiacs. And they didn’t care.

This is where I wanted to escape. Junior high, to put it mildly, was public school hell. Smart was different, and different was bad.

No way was I going to survive four more years of it in high school. I had found a loophole.

And so, I found a part of myself on that field trip. I could speak with relative coherence on random topics with accuracy and conciseness. I even became a teaching assistant in college for public speaking, giving tips since to help people communicate more effectively in all kinds of situations.

Funny thing is, that high school never again held the speech tournament.

Getting back on the bus, I was a little sad. But I knew I would return. This happy accident had not only tapped a hidden ability, but had also given me a new goal in life.

Speechless? Not me, not anymore.


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