Speaking

“What’s a fear you’ve overcome?” my student asks me from across the desk.

“Public speaking,” I say without thinking, and she raises her eyebrows. Though we’re in English class, spending the day filling out interest surveys by engaging in an enthusiastic round of “speed dating,” this particular student is also in my Public Speaking class at the end of the day.

“Fair enough,” she replies with a laugh. “You’ve definitely gotten over that one.”

Though I’ve learned a great deal about the subject lately, really that all-too-common fear was something that I had to face a long time ago, in a classroom in North Seattle, as a young teacher who cleared her throat too often and constantly pushed her hair behind her ears.

I’m thinking about speaking quite a lot this year, actually. Public Speaking has been the first “new” class I’ve taught since Canadian History, now almost seven years ago, so researching and lesson planning have taken me to odd corners of studying forensics, rhetoric and the nonverbal communication of various cultures. I’ve spent the year watching TED Talks, debates, and political speeches, mining the Internet for examples of that elusive cocktail of confidence and knowledge that makes smart people into good speakers.

Along the way, I’ve become convinced that I’ve stumbled into one of the most practical classes that a student can take. We talk about job interviews and best man speeches, proposals of the business and romantic variety. I tell them that this class would have been great for me as a student, because I can see that it’s great for them.

At the beginning of the semester they balk at having to speak for two whole minutes. “What will I say?” they wail. Their final speeches officially max out at ten minutes, but I’ve had students keep speaking for 15, regaling their classmates with information about the electoral college or Quiddich, or persuading them of the injustice of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy snub. Though they don’t end the class having written any papers, built any toolboxes, or sewn any pillows, there is something almost tangible about the confidence created by a few successful speeches.

The other half of my day is also about speaking, of a very different kind. Luci’s sentences are shorter, two-word minimalist masterpieces like “Bye, Mom!” and “All done!” Her collection of words grows daily. Yesterday it was “elbow” and “leg,” places she can proudly point out while talking to her grandmother on FaceTime. The best part of each morning is when she crawls into bed, says “‘nuggle?” and curls up beside me on my pillow for a few blissful seconds. Her world is words and climbing lately, every day a new sound for us to interpret and a new chair to watch her scramble up onto.

Watching my daughter learn to speak and my students learn to speak confidently in front of their peers, I’m struck with the importance of spoken words. Written ones I’ve loved more openly over the years, spending much of my time writing and reading, or teaching people to write and read. But how many more words do we say every day than the ones that end up on paper? Spoken words, unlike their written cousins, are volatile and dynamic, at once permanent and ephemeral. It’s not for nothing that James warns that no one can tame the tongue, that forest fire of kinetic destruction. This year, however, I’ve delighted in the possibilities of speaking more than dwelling on its pitfalls. A good speech can inspire, a kind word can heal, and a sound argument can change the world.

It will be years before Luci can write, but in her speaking I get to know her. What she sees, what she thinks, what she wants. Someday maybe I’ll help her face the fear of speaking in front of strangers or classmates, but for now she’s fearless, naming the world as she sees it, one syllable at a time. With her, and my students, I’m happier than ever to listen.

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