They say that more people fear public speaking than they do death, and for all I know, that may be true. But, I can think of something worse: speaking in front of a group of twelve-year-olds.
Me, I got over my fear of public speaking years ago, and now I actually enjoy it tremendously. It started gradually: first, I discovered that I liked performing in front of large, anonymous crowds. Seas of faces, especially with my glasses off, don't scare me one bit. Then, through the years, I learned that I could actually perform for smaller groups, and then—miracle of miracles—I learned that I was actually pretty good at delivering presentations for a small classroom. Now, if only I could master the art of one-on-one conversations, I’d actually be all set...
However, there was one fear that I have still continued to harbor, lo, these many decades. A presentation for a group of adults is one thing, but what if I was asked to...shudder...talk in front of a group of kids? My sister’s a middle school teacher, and my dad’s a principal, and god love them, but it’s something that would give me hives to do, every day. I mean, I still have nightmares about having to live through junior high! There was no way that I ever wanted to go home again.
Well. This past week, my worst nightmare came true, when I received a call on my phone. I was asked to talk about what I do for a living at a sixth grade Career Day, one of a group of other people from the company. My first thought was, “Why me?” My next thought was, “What the hell am I going to do for one whole hour?”
Man, I sweated over that. Well, to be honest, I did more worrying in my head than actual writing. I thought about it the entire week, and mentioned it to everyone that would listen.
I asked my sister, Kerrie, how to approach things. “First thing you should do, ask them what you do in Public Relations. Then, when someone answers, throw them candy or something. That’ll get everyone’s attention.”
Fortunately, we were being supplied with some great stuffed animals, so I wasn’t worried about that. But it was nice to have my first line worked out in advance, from a pro. I felt like Johnny Carson being fed lines from his team of writers. Now all I had to do was to sort out the rest of the hour-long speech.
I didn't actually set anything down to paper until two days before the speech. It seemed that I had so many other things to take care of, or was it that I was just trying to put up roadblocks? Once I started writing, though, it seemed to move quickly, although I could still feel myself obsessively worrying over it. Midway through, I had a panic attack, thinking about the words "Public Relations." How about if I left the "l" out of the first word, somewhere? I could just see myself in the classroom, with the words "PUBIC RELATIONS" flashing onto the screen in front of twenty or so adolescents.
And still, I sweated. I went to bed at night, throughout the week, with thoughts of what to write moving through my head, but nothing distinct, everything jumbled, save for a neon red ticker tape machine going through my head constantly, blaring out “FOUR MORE DAYS”...“TWO MORE DAYS”...”LESS THAN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS”...
And then, only three more hours, and then, a drive to the electric chair. Speech time had arrived. I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping late that morning, to give myself time to get ready and feel on my game. That last hour flew by, as I made the 40-minute drive to school. I turned of Sirius during the first five minutes. No, can't listen to Howard Stern. That would be sinful. I turned on Kiss Me, Kate , but snapped it of after fifteen minutes. No, can't get distracted. Focus on the speech. Focus!
I made it to the middle school. A student aide, clearly somebody's mom, was there to greet me. "By the way, we didn't have enough rooms today, so you're going to have to share your time with someone," she informed me, nonchalantly.
What? Change my speech? The one I had labored all week on? Man, I hate change! I'm a first born, dammit! I'm a prima dona! I was going to be an actress, I was going to be a star! YOU CAN'T DO THIS TO ME!
But of course, I kept this all inside. The student aide led me through a corridor, bustling with activity. The recess bell had just sounded, and the kids were making their way to the next class, stopping at lockers, screaming out to each other. I felt like a fish swimming upstream, battling against the tide to reach our destination. I held my laptop in my arms protectively, as an old lady would her pocketbook. “Once that bell rings, it’s hard to get them to stop,” the aide observed.
Somehow, we reached the classroom. Unlike my memories of junior high, which had seemed brighter, wider, cleaner somehow (even though the stories were dark and ugly), this room seemed small and cramped, and packed with kids and books and paper and reminders and crafts. The teacher looked like an even-more-strung-out version of Felicity Huffman on Desperate Housewives, although she had clearly been beaten into submission through the years, and only raised her voice to speak when it was needed.
As for the kids, they seemed far less threatening than they had when I went to middle school, although I could easily spot the stereotypes. The classroom star sat in the center of the room—a black girl with neatly pulled back hair and (no word of a lie) shiny patent leather shoes. Her arm was perpetually quivering with movement, like bacon frying on a grill, as she waited for the next opportunity to raise her hand and ask or answer a question. In the front of the classroom—probably by design—was the class clown, a small, wiry Italian boy with a bowl cut haircut. The class nerd slouched in the back of the room, a husky looking kid wearing flannel. I even saw Tiger, an older Tiger, with glasses and curly back hair, sitting nonchalantly in one of the corner pockets.
I nervously introduced myself to the teacher and handed my laptop to the organizer of the event. And then, I sat in the back of the class, crammed into too-small chairs designed for smaller legs than mine, waiting for my turn at bat. Inside my head, I rehearsed my speech, again and again, flipping obsessively through my hand scribbled notes. “Keep talking,” I thought, listening to my friend Tim, the speaker ahead of me, who was talking about our Claim Department. “Eat up that time, baby. Eat up that time.”
But my time came, soon enough. Tim turned over the floor to me, and I rose from the chair, to face my audience. Did they all have to appear so bored?
I announced my name, clearly, and then moved into the speech, starting as my sister Kerrie had instructed me. “Now, does anyone know what Public Relations is?” I asked the class.
Blank stares. The straight A student had her head down, electing, for once in her life, to sink to B level. I sat there, sweating, wondering how long to wait.
The class clown, who I had watched perpetually pepper the previous speaker with questions, finally raised his hand.
“Is that something you do with your wife?” he asked.
“Not in public,” I said, and started to laugh. And then, to my surprise, I learned my next rule: the kid looked crushed, as if I had delivered him a mortal blow. Oh wait, I thought. I forgot. These are kids. They wear their emotions on their sleeve. You can’t kid them like you can adults, make faces. Things are much bigger deals.
I started to tap dance, trying frantically to figure out how exactly to explain what it is I do. "See, my job is to get the media to discuss our company in positive terms..." Blanks stares. "I look to help promote the company's brand..." Even more blank stares.
Something bubbled up in my head. "We sort of act as the company's cheerleaders..."
One boy in the front jerked his head up, ofended. "Say WHAT?"
“No, no, not like THAT...but...well, you heard Tim just talk about how he went down to New Orleans to help people with claims, right? It’s my job to try to talk to reporters and people on TV, to get them interested in Tim’s stories, so that they’ll tell them on the news.”
Still, many blank stares. I pointed to the organizer of the event. “Alex went down to New Orleans, too, as part of the National Guard. And when he came back, I interviewed him about what he saw, and he had some great stories. In fact, just last week, an article appeared about him, based on what I wrote down after that interview. See, he said some really cool things. He talked about, for every one incident I saw of man's inhumanity to man, he saw six or seven other examples of man's overall kindness to his fellow man. Well, we he said that, I thought, that’s a cool thing to say, and wrote it down. And someone actually agreed with me, because they printed it.”
The straight A student raised her hand. “So...you write?”
“Yes. Yes! I write, and I talk on the phone a lot. Does anyone here like to write?” A girl in the front row, who I hadn’t noticed before, raised her hand.
“See, good for you,” I said, and handed her a stuffed animal. “Because if you get one thing out of my speech today, it’s this, and I truly believe it: If you learn how to write effectively, you truly have the power to rule the world. ”
Another hand came up. “Do you write any books?”
I shrugged. “Well, not at my job, but yes, I have written a few.” I didn’t bother to mention that none of them had been published.
Suddenly, the entire class had their hands up. What was my current novel called? What was the one before it? What do I like best about my job? What do I like the least? What are my hours like? How much do I get paid? Did I always want to write?
"Well, yes, actually," I replied. "Ever since I was your age. You could always see me at home, writing down stories, creating comic books. That's all I ever wanted to do, and it's nice to be paid to do it."
Within thirty minutes, I had emptied my bag of goodies, and had run out of time. I felt flushed and excited, knowing that I had made a connection in their minds.
I turned to Tim as we walked out the door on our way to the cars. I felt like a gladiator who had just slain a lion. The halls were empty now, the kids in their classes. “How’d did I do?”
Tim beamed, which he always has a great habit of doing. “Do? You did great. You actually got their attention!”
I smiled to myself. That was a really nice thing to say.
As we reached our cars, we said our goodbyes, and I turned to leave. But then, I heard Tim's voice. "Hey, Ted."
I turned around. "Yes?"
He grinned. "I think it's really cool that you knew what you wanted to do, when you were a kid, and you actually are able to end up doing it."
I went through the rest of the day with a smile on my face. And, it made me more certain than ever that I was headed down the right path.