Sunday, April 29, 2018

Tell me a Story

(This is the speech I gave to my students on the last day of the semester,
Spring 2018.)

Over the weekend, I attended several "end of year" events and banquets at the high school. At one of them, the teacher read the words of the famous "Wear Sunscreen" essay that has become rather a cultural icon in terms of graduation speeches.

"Your choices are half chance," she read. And immediately, I thought of the best job I've ever had- the one I have right now, the one I got by chance.

Or was it? Because when I think back, there is a pretty sturdy chain of people and events that leads to me teaching Speech at Bradley. I don't think I can quite pinpoint its origin either. It's tempting to say that it all began the day I decided the best way to get over my fear of public speaking would be to try out for the speech team in high school. (Oh, how I miss the naive bravery of youth.)

But recently as I was looking through my Facebook feed, I found a post from earlier this year in which I described how my dad used to joke about my gift of gab saying that I "loved to hear the sound of my own voice" and how I had come to realize that he was only partly right because what I really loved was the sound of *anyone's* voice- so long as it was talking. So I think it started much earlier than I used to think.

The first semester I taught speech at Bradley, I decided that it would be appropriate if I ended class on the last day with a speech of my own. Each subsequent semester, I debated doing it again but then some bit of inspiration would strike me like a lightning bolt and I'd feel compelled. So I guess that by now, it's practically a tradition.

But I admit that while I spend the whole semester pushing and prodding my students not to procrastinate, I am the absolute worst at heeding my own advice. This time though, the problem wasn't coming up with *what* to say. It was figuring out how to tell them everything that has been swimming around in my head for the last week or so.

And if that isn't a perfect metaphor for what it's like to be a teacher at the end of the semester- drowning in the things you still want to impart to your students, I don't know what is.

I suspect it's the same for parents come graduation time, and part of why May is filled with so much personal angst in general.  There is so much "but I still have so much to tell you/show you/ teach you" in the air.

So, back to my speech.

Last week, my sister found a box of my old things in her attic and in there was a diary I started at the age of 14 and completed when I was nearly 16, though I did add a few notes in a few years later during college. I sat down eagerly to read through it but quickly became fairly horrified with that version of myself, who seemed - at best - well, fickle. She displayed a stunning lack of judgment, some questionable character choices, and just showed a different person than I thought I had been. It's not an exaggeration to say it sent me into a bit of a, shall we say, tizzy?

Essentially, the entire journal is about boys and relationships.  And one in particular that stood out and continued to haunt me through the evening, because in among all the stories of the boys who so clearly treated me so very badly was one - yes, just one- who did not. He said lovely things to me and pulled off incredibly romantic gestures (I mean, as romantic as 15-year olds can be really) and while I had kept these memories tucked safely in my heart all these years, there was one big problem; I felt I hadn't been as kind to this boy as I should have been. And despite trying a few times over the past 25 years, I'd never been able to find him.

So of course, I did what any sane person would do- I tried again. When a search on Facebook proved fruitless (I mean really, who isn't on Facebook these days?) I turned to our old friend Google and saw that in fact, this particular boy- sorry, man- had created an account on a reunion website not so long ago. And after some clumsy navigating of the site that had me embarrassed about ever making fun of old people and technology, I was able to send him an e-mail. Well, sort of, because the website made it clear that he would only be able to see it if one of us had paid for a membership and I had not done so. Still- I figured that after all this time, fate would step in if the universe deemed it to be so.

The next morning I woke and grabbed my phone to snooze the alarm and saw the Facebook notification at the top of the screen that I had a friend request from... guess who. I'll spare you the details of the parts where I doubted it was actually him, scanned his page, determined it was him and that I had not been searching for his proper first name all these years (yes, really), and then sat stumped for what to do next. I texted both my husband and my best friend like a silly teenager because really, there's no etiquette book for this stuff is there?

The sunscreen essay advises us to "do one thing that scares you every day." Hitting send on that message definitely qualified.

So to wrap up what has become an example MUCH longer than any I would ever recommend any of my speech students use, I feel blessed that I have been able to reconnect with this person because he is an important part of my story and it's one that was missing some pages. Being able to fill them in is a great gift.

And THAT brings me to my point. (I know, just when you thought it wasn't possible that I was getting to one.) When I think about why we do this- why we insist that college students take a speech class and put them through the process, we sometimes talk about how it will benefit them in their future careers. They'll be so good at giving presentations, we say. They'll be able to pitch proposals and ideas, we say. They'll be able to talk to co-workers and be social. Interpersonal skills.

But I think it's so much more than that. I think it's about telling your story. About speaking up and sharing who you are. It's arguably the most powerful thing you'll learn not just here in college, but in life. And that's a skill you're going to need your entire life because you - and your story- is going to keep changing. Right now, 15-year old you is still pretty fresh in your minds and he or she doesn't seem so bad. Trust me, that will change and if you have written a journal all I can say is, save it - but prepare yourself.

In an effort to try to ease your fears, I joke all the time that we are just giving speeches, we aren't doing surgery. No life and death actions in speech class. But recently a friend told me that high school speech changed her life, saved her life, and shaped who she is and as I started to reflect on that in my own life, I realized that maybe I should stop downplaying it so much.

It's important. Using words as tools to tell your story is important.

That's where the magic in life is. What you're experiencing right now- this place, this school, this season of life- it's magic. And there will be people who cross your path here who may disappear and then reappear 25 years later and as the line in that sunscreen essay says, "the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young."

I didn't attend school here. But the man I told you about? Nope, he didn't go to school here either. He didn't even live in Illinois. I met him through mutual friends, and they met him here. At a camp for speech team kids, that I attended here with him and many others that following summer. That story? It starts here. As does my story with many other people, including now- all of you.

Chance? Maybe not.

Go, tell your stories. They matter.