Facing the Dragon

Thunk.  The large envelope slid through the mail slot and landed in the bin on the other side.  And I, standing there by the rows of mailboxes, felt my stomach do a somersault.  That little thunk may have sounded innocent enough to any casual bystander, but to me it said, You’re crazy.  What on earth do you think you’re doing? Public speaking class?  Are you kidding me?  And all the other things that you’ll be required to do?  You’re nuts! And you’re not even sure that you believe in higher education anymore.

I was at the post office near my home in Kisumu, Kenya.  The large envelope I had just mailed was my application to Faith Builders Training Institute.  Well, maybe my application won’t be accepted.  That thought was strangely comforting.  And even if it is, I can always decide later not to go after all. Yes, I don’t have to do this.  It is my choice.

That was 21 months ago, and oh—what those months have held!  Things I never imagined on that day in the post office in Kisumu have filled my life—many sunrise and springtime sorts of things.  But it’s no exaggeration to say that Public Speaking class was a looming specter from the day that I mailed that application until only about a month ago.

            On the first day of fall semester last September I walked into Public Speaking class for the first time with a feeling of inevitable doom.  When Mr. Stoltzfus asked us what we are looking forward to about speech class and what we hope to gain from it, some of the others had grand and glorious things to say.  I was thinking, Uhh, excuse me?  I’m in this class only because it’s a requirement for graduation.  This is all about sheer survival, nothing more.

            I did survive.  We all did (I soon found out that many of my classmates felt the same way as I did about speech class).  But it wasn’t only sheer survival.  It was a priceless learning experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  Like one of my classmates said, it would be perhaps be more appropriate to call the class Public Personal Development rather than Public Speaking.  Together we faced our insecurities and offered critique and encouragement.  We filled out evaluation forms for each other’s speeches.  We watched video tapes of our own speeches. We plunged straight into fear and found that instead of drowning we could swim.

Even beyond the character-building aspect of it all, public speaking is about much more than just getting up in front of a crowd to talk.  It’s about clear thinking, organization, and communication.  It’s about saying what you mean and meaning what you say.  It’s about arming yourself against the disgraceful inarticulateness of this generation—a generation that has to insert like, whatever, and you know into every other phrase.

So I found that I enjoyed almost every aspect of speech class except for the few minutes when I had to be up in front of the classroom talking.  I loved listening to my classmates’ speeches.  I found that writing speeches can be great fun.  I suggested to Mr. Stoltzfus (facetiously, of course, though wishing it could happen) that for the final speech I could prepare two speeches and someone else who likes to present speeches but doesn’t like preparing them could do the presenting.  He said maybe I should get a job writing speeches for the President.

I wish this story had a prettier ending.  I wish I could say that Public Speaking class took away all my fear of speaking in front of a group.   I wish it were all tied neatly into a package.  But even though the ending is still sort of raw and messy, somehow it doesn’t matter.  I found Jesus and joy this past semester through Public Speaking class more than in almost anything else (He meets us most where we are desperately needy, doesn’t He?).  The unexpected scenery and plot twists of this story have been far better than a prettily packaged ending.

            And guess what?  Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.  Now that I’m finished with speech class, I sort of miss it.