By JOSEPH TINTLE
Every September I tell incoming students to my English III classes that before the year is over they will participate in a writing contest and stand before their classmates and deliver a speech.
“No way, Mister,” someone always blurts out.
“This guy’s crazy,” another whispers.
I know why they react this way. They’re afraid to stand before their peers because they believe they’ll be ridiculed or come off seeming not as smart as the other guy.
Then I tell them a Jerry Seinfeld joke: “According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
The kids laugh.
Then I ask a question. “How many of you in this room are afraid of public speaking? Now, be honest.”
Ninety percent of them raise their hands. So I point out that they are all in the same boat.
“Now,” I ask, “how many of you want to see other people fail or make fools of themselves? Again, be honest.”
Not one hand shoots up.
And so a seed is sown to assure a successful writing contest in April.
We are now approaching April and the speeches have been handed in. Once again the students have made it difficult for the judges to select finalists much less winners. This year’s topic is titled The Last Lecture. It is based on the internet sensation of 2007 in which Dr. Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh delivered a most memorable talk advising his peers, students, and a worldwide audience about how to live a meaningful life. Not long after that he died of pancreatic cancer.
After we watch Dr. Pausch’s address, I tell my students that even though he delivered a touching, memorable talk, theirs will be better.
“How’s that going to happen? We don’t even have high school diplomas and he had a doctorate.”
“Good question. I’ll tell you how during the contest.”
So the students get to work. For the most part they must write the speech in class. I don’t want mommy’s and daddy’s fingerprints on this assignment. I convince students that it is important they consider their lives at age 16 and from time to time after that. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The students are now excited about the contest. Some are asking me for criticism moments after writing their first paragraph. I tell them no. I’ve taught them how to write, now they must write on their own. For several days they write and rewrite and soon their pieces start to take shape. I now give their work a glance to make certain they have written in a conversational tone because their version of The Last Lecture cannot sound like some stuffy speech riddled with SAT words and countless quotations culled from dusty bookshelves.
No, this has to be from the heart. After all, the students are told they only have a brief time before they die so what will they tell classmates, friends, and family before they depart for the hereafter? Of course, many address the topic of death. Others thank their mothers and fathers for a job well done. Advice is often parceled out to classmates. But no one is called ever called out.
The students often come up with observations about life that I’ve never even considered in my 62 years. These are the magical moments I experience when reading over their copy.
When they finally stand and deliver their work, the students who battled me in September are often the ones who want to go first. They have something meaningful to say and they want to say it now. They talk about topics that are of concern to them: love, family members, and God. Precisely the topics Randy Pausch said he would not discuss in his Last Lecture. And that’s why many of our students wrote better talks than the man with the Ph.D. They got personal.
Speeches are met with tears, laughter, profound thought, and deep appreciation. Each student receives warm applause and leaves the podium beaming for having delivered a moving talk and having beaten back the fear of public speaking.
Then come the trophies. Each of my five classes receives three trophies for first, second, and third place. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. Teachers need to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to education.
The biggest thrill is when you see the winners strut across the classroom holding their trophies on high. Then I issue a warning, “Get these home safely. I’m not buying new ones.”
“Don’t worry, Mister, when you weren’t looking I texted my father to pick it up at lunch time.”
“Thanks for your honesty,” I say. “When you see your dad, tell him to also pick you up after 4 p.m. detention.”