Wednesday, September 21, 2005

After having mocked the old pious people for their toasts, perhaps it's time to look inward, to the very fountain of mockery.

To tell the truth, I'm a pretty lousy public speaker. The more important or sincere an event is, the less able I am to rise to the occasion. I'm an informal kind of guy. Additionally, I speak faster than the average bear on a normal day, so if you add the adrenalin from public speaking, it's like the Chipmunks attending a Toastmasters meeting.

I can recall five separate non-work-related (because we do not discuss my job, which I freakin' LOVE, in this blog) public speaking events

First, at age 13, there was my Bar Mitzvah, detailed in this blog post. Despite looking like a good Jew, what with the natty blue velvety yamulkah adorned with silver embroidery, and with the prominent Semitic nose, I never really felt the gravity of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Consequently, I tried to be funny. I soon discovered that what passes for funny on the playground (e.g. faux booger picking or poop jokes) doesn't knock 'em dead in a synagogue.

My public speaking score: 0 for 1.

Fast forward about 5 years. I'm a geeky senior in high school. I run with a nerdy crowd, but somehow, due to pure chance, I'm seated next to Tina, our Senior Class President in our Government class.

Tina was super popular. She was cute, smart, nice, and very blonde. There were hotter chicks in high school, but she was the thinking man's choice, admired by many. Naturally I had a little crush on her, but I had a girlfriend at the time (I know! I'm surprised too!), so I saved myself the embarrassment of futiley hitting on the unattainable Senior Class President.

Somehow, amazingly, after sitting next to me for an hour each day, I began to grow on Tina. Not in the fungal way, but in the endearing way. She got me and thought I was funny. This was probably the first time in my life that a popular person saw me as anything other than a geek. I was astonished every time she laughed at my jokes.

As Senior Class President, one of her duties was to help plan the annual Senior Banquet. This was a semi-formal occasion where the popular people assigned awards to each other and jocularly reviewed their four years of high school. So, I was stunned when Tina turned to me one day and asked me to be an MC for the banquet, along with one of her hot friends, Amy.

Me. I was going to host the Senior Banquet. With a hot cheerleader!

This was unfathomable. A hot cheerleader and a nerd working together to pull off a big show? It sounded like a crappy and cliched movie, the high school version of the buddy flick, but that was my assignment.

Over the next several weeks I worked with Amy to come up with material. This was probably the first time in my life that I sat down and tried to write jokes. All my previous experience at humor had been more of the peanut-gallery variety. I was an extemporaneous funny guy, not a jokesmith (or a surgeon!). To make matters worse, Amy and I rarely agreed on what was funny. It was a tough slog. She was way hot though, and I got to go to her house, so that helped ease the pain.

Unsurprisingly, I sucked ass. My material wasn't funny and Amy and I had no chemistry together. The defining point of the evening came when I went off-script and recited the 51 digits of Pi that I had memorized months earlier. It may be the ratio of a diameter to a circumference, but it ain't funny. My geek friends cheered lustily, but I was sunk.

Afterwards, people mostly avoided me. When they felt compelled to comment, they said things like "Gee, your voice sounded funny." Thanks.

0 for 2.

Next up, high school graduation. By dutifully performing all my homework for all four years of high school, I had ended up being named our high school valedictorian, which meant that I had to give an address at our graduation ceremony. This was probably two months after the Senior Banquet debacle, so I was feeling a little gunshy (although I had memorized another 50 digits of Pi, so really I was ready for anything).

I despaired over this speech. I truly felt as though I needed to Say Something Important. I was supposed to be a smart guy and now I needed to make up something smart to say. You'd think that being surrounded by intelligent people, that I would have sought out some help, but I chose to take the opposite approach. I wrote my speech in secrecy, unwilling to let anyone help me.

A week before the ceremony, I decided to show the speech to Mr. Friss, my English teacher. I needed some validation that my speech was worthy of the occasion. In his usual tactful way, he pronounced it "fluff" and trite. So, I pulled out the thesaurus and put some bigger words in. That was the best I could do. I don't have very many Important things rattling around in my brain, so I couldn't really start over.

On graduation day, I was insanely nervous. Our high school held its graduation ceremonies at Chronicle Pavilion, the local concert venue. It was intimidating.

I got to the podium, my knees shaking and my voice quavering, and I started.

I had struggled for a long time with the theme of the speech. What should the valedictorian, the person who theoretically got more "right" answers than anyone else, say to the world? I decided to say that true wisdom was more than just "right" answers. It was knowing and admitting when you might be wrong.

The speech began with a gimmick. Gimmicks are gold. I asked my fellow graduates to stand up and join me in a pledge. I had them recite after me, leading them through a promise to always consider that they might be wrong. It wasn't what they expected me to say and it set the tone nicely for the rest of the speech. I gave examples. I covered the funny and the serious. I avoided any mention of Pi.

I walked off the stage a few minutes later having executed the first succesful public speaking experience of my life. Although the speech was trite, it was appropriate, which was a first for me. I had people across the social strata come up to me afterwards and compliment me on the speech.

1 for 3.

Since then my only public speaking has been at weddings. I gave a toast at my sister's wedding and really the best thing you can say about it was that it was brief. Brevity is gold. I didn't embarrass myself, but I didn't really rise to the occasion. Let's say:

1.5 for 4.

Then, I was asked to do a reading on the theme of "Life" for a good friend's wedding. He acknowledged that I was given a vague topic, but he assured me that he knew I'd do something good with it. I pored over poetry books for a few days, hoping to find a poem about Life that was both appropriate for a wedding and simultaneously didn't make me wretch. I was unable to find such a poem.

Then, I recalled that the groom, with whom I had attended high school, had repeatedly used a gimmick when he was out of ideas in English class. He'd write an ode, which always began the same way. If it was a poem about french fries, it would start:

French fries,
O french fries

A poem about antidisestablishmentarianism?

O antidisestablishmentarianism

I followed his lead and crafted my "Life, O Life" poem. I tried to say nice weddingly things, but maybe a wee bit of jocularity crept in. I mean, the guy's name was Dornblaser. How fun was that to rhyme?

So, although it was somewhat inappropriate, I enjoyed it. That brings me to

2.5 for 5

50%! That's an F. Not bad!


Ruvas Caribbean said...

Congrats on the valediction, but you probably should have worked harder to avoid being valedictorian in the first place. It would have save you a lot of stress and trouble. Me, I intentionally avoided all that bother.

Two of my best friends ended up being valedictorian and salutatorian of my high school. They both procrastinated the writing of their speeches. In fact, they were both writing their speeches IN THE PROCESSION at the beginning of the ceremony. I mean they were literally scribbling with pencils and pads of paper as they lined up and marched.

The valedictorian didn't quite finish his speech, so he had to adlib it at the end. Which led to his best line, actually: "And finally, I'd like to thank my parents, without whom I would not exist, and my teachers, without whom I would be stupid."

Mike said...

$10 says your valedictorian was smarter than mine.