I distinctly remember Beth, my neighbor at the time, and the assistant in the Humanities department, asking me the question: “Could you teach a public speaking class?”
“Yes,” I said. “I was a mass communication major with a minor in speech communication.”
It was the Thursday before Labor Day, and the course at the community college was scheduled to begin on Tuesday. In a matter of days, I read the textbook, outlined the goals of the course, and wrote my first syllabus on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, my friends encouraging me as I scribbled in my spiral notebook and they helped me brainstorm ideas.
On Tuesday night of the following week I was teaching my first college course.
* * *
This morning as I was taking my son to the orthopedist after fracturing his foot while playing tennis on clay courts for the first time, we were talking about different things. Somehow we got on the subject of teaching.
That’s when I realized how long it’s been.
“I started teaching 20 years ago as a part-time adjunct instructor. At that time, I didn’t know it would roll into a full-time career.”
One word crossed my mind: lucky. I’m really lucky. Not many people are fortunate enough to find a true passion—something that makes them tick—and that they love doing over and over again. When you find that thing that you’re good at, you should do it. And if you’re really good at it, doing it over and over again is a true pleasure.
When I would say to people, “I worked at the Orioles for 13 years,” that felt like a long time. Now, I say I’ve been at my current university for 13 years, AND that I’ve been teaching for 20. Twenty lucky years.
* * *
During my first year of college, I had to give a speech. The professor made us reach into a hat and pull out a subject. We then had to spend hours upon hours at the library researching that subject, pulling periodicals and looking up things in the card catalog.
My topic was speech apprehension.
On the day I was to deliver my speech, I was unusually nervous. I was third to last to go. The adrenaline was pumping through my body so wildly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
When it was my turn to speak, I got up and made my way to the front of the room. Three-quarters of the way through the speech on speech apprehension I succumbed to my very topic. So apprehensive had I become that I couldn’t finish my speech. My heart was racing, my head was spinning, and I felt like I was going to pass out. I had to sit down. I couldn’t go on.
It was my first taste of public failure.
* * *
A few years into teaching through the community college, I had a group of students that I taught at the Army base in Fort Meade, Maryland. These public speaking students were good; most of them were in the military, and a good portion of them would continue on and complete a four-year degree at a university.
One student began to speak. She had a strong topic and her delivery was solid.
Three quarters of the way into the speech, she stopped.
“I can’t finish the speech,” she said, and ran out of the room.
I looked at the rest of the students and told them I was going to go talk with her. “If she comes back into the room, be ready to give her a big round of applause,” I said.
I went out into the hall and she was sitting on the floor, her knees up to her chin in a ball, on the verge of tears.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I just can’t do it.”
“Yes, you can,” I said.
“No, I can’t,” she said. “I’m just too scared.”
“Let me tell you a little story,” I started. I told her about my failure and how I didn’t complete the speech and how I had to battle back the next semester and fight to get over that fear of public speaking. “If you don’t come back in the room now and finish, you will forever hate this moment. You can do it. You have a room full of people in there ready to cheer you on,” I told her.
The class was ready. When she mustered up the courage and looked at me and said, “Okay, let’s go,” I knew she was going to be fine.
To thunderous, encouraging applause, she took her place at the podium.
“As I was saying…” she began.
I will never forget the sound of the clapping, the encouraging students in their seats wanting her to succeed, the look on her face when she finished that darn speech, and the look of thanks she gave me from the podium.
To this day, it is one of my most proud accomplishments in the classroom. Whenever I have a bad day or feel like I can’t get through to a student, I remember that moment.
It’s just one of many memories I have of the pleasure of teaching for the past 20 years. I hope I have the opportunity to do this job for many, many more years to come.