The smartest thing I did in high school was take Speech class.
I was thinking about that the other night as, just for grins, I scanned some old high-school photographs and uploaded them to Facebook. I took this photo from the lectern. The assignment was to give a sales pitch, so I dug out one of my old cameras, the Argus A-Four, and went off to “sell” it. The flashgun was busted, so when it was time to demonstrate the camera I just opened the lens up wide and snapped a couple shots. I’m lucky any of them turned out, grainy and dark as they are with their washed-out corners. I’m glad for them not because the school building is gone now, or because the kids have all grown up, or because they make me remember how the teacher (in the very back) sounded like a post-puberty Kermit the Frog. I’m glad for them because they remind me of how violently I shook the first time I stood there – even my voice trembled – but how effortlessly I spoke from there at the end of the year.
I operate very comfortably in my introverted skin today, but I didn’t when I was 15. I had a couple good friends, but that was all. I wished to banter easily with everyone, but I always stumbled and bumbled and felt embarrassed, and it hurt. It was easier to keep to myself. I even learned to stare at my shoes when walking between classes so I wouldn’t catch anyone’s gaze.
Nobody in Speech class was there because they loved to perform. We were all pretty much in the same boat of wanting to overcome our fear of standing before others. Because there’s nothing like common condition to build camaraderie, I made friends in class, especially with the girl in the sailor hat in the photo’s lower right corner. We passed sarcastic notes to each other all year as we listened to our classmates speak. The girl in the red with the ball cap got into the act sometimes, too. They both used to crack me up.
And of course nothing overcomes a fear like repeatedly facing it. I gave probably 20 speeches that year, although I remember only the “why I took this class” speech where my voice shook and this sales speech. But no matter; by the end of the year I could stand there and talk as though I was born with a podium growing from the soles of my feet.
Darn good thing, too. That year I taught myself to write computer programs. When the math teacher got wind that I had written a program that used a mathematical formula to draw any polygon on the screen (a big deal in the computing technology of the time), he asked to see it – and was excited enough about it that he asked me to demonstrate it to our Geometry class. I did it, but without having overcome my fear of public speaking in Speech class, I would have turned him down flat.
The math teacher asked me to write programs that illustrated other geometrical concepts, and I demonstrated them all to the class. At first it just felt great that one of my silly hobbies earned me some good attention. But then the teacher suggested that I could study this in college and do it for a living. It may seem astonishing now that the idea hadn’t occurred to me, but in the early 1980s software development was still an unusual career choice. His encouragement got me to apply to engineering school, where I studied mathematics and computer science, which led to my first job working for a software company. Nearly 20 years and five software companies later, there’s no other path I’d rather have taken. I can’t believe I get to do this thing I dreamed of at 15.
I almost didn’t sign up for Speech. Just seeing the box for it on the enrollment form made my heart splash anxiously. I figured I’d end up in a study hall for my spare period. But in the last two seconds before the forms were collected I impulsively marked the box for Speech, and then it was too late to turn back.
And they say the butterfly who flaps its wings in the Congo can cause a tornado in Kansas City.