The following excerpt is from an interview by Sjon Ashby a doctoral student at Capella University. You can read more in the current 2011 Summer edition of Fine Lines. David tells the story of a high school speech teacher who changed his life.
by David Martin
My sophomore year in high school I had to take a speech class, and the “meanest” teacher I ever had in my life was this little Italian woman who taught that class. She was 4’ 10”. Mrs. Ahern looked up to everybody and almost hurt her neck to look up at some of the athletes in school. She never smiled. That day, when she asked me to give my first speech, I will never forget. I stuttered so badly. When I finished, I was wringing wet with sweat. Half way through my first attempt, I just shut down and I said to myself, “Screw this,” and I went back and sat down in my seat.
She slowly walked down the aisle to me, and she leaned over my shoulder and whispered into my ear, so only I could hear, “David, I know your mother.” She turned around and walked to the other side of the room and took about ten deep breaths. The class was silent, and she said, “Well, well, well. David you really do like sports, and I’m sure you’re a big believer that practice helps the team.” She wouldn’t get away from that idea, until I said loudly enough so the whole room could hear, “Yes, that’s right.”
Then, she pointed at me with her index finger from across the room and pulled me up again to the front. She said, “We’re going to do that speech one more time.”
“What? I gave it once; that’s all I’m doing. It was terrible. I suck,” I said, forcefully.
“Well, a lot of people have found this class challenging, but you just don’t look like the kind of student who would quit out there on the football field, if you got tackled behind the line,” she said, softly.
She said, “That’s a metaphor.”
I almost swore, but I knew that she would tell my mother. She got me up there to give my speech again, and I was only half as soaked with sweat as the first time when I finished. My talk was still horrible, but I completed it. The class was quiet. The students knew I was struggling. Nobody applauded. I knew I was not born to be an orator. I hung my head and slowly walked back to my seat.
She started clapping and said, “I mean that as praise, David. That was much better than the first time.”
She spent five minutes walking around the room, talking about God knows what, but she believed in the importance of students being able to say what they meant to an audience, and she walked back to the front of my aisle and pointed that index finger at me, again, then said, “Come up to the front, David, and this time bring that prop that you prepared for your speech. You haven’t even shown it to us, yet.”
I said, “No. I gave it twice. I am finished.”
She looked at me, sternly, and said so everyone could hear, “David, I know your mother.”
Oh, my God. I stood up and walked to the front.
She said, “Get that prop.”
Oh, yeah, I brought it to the front, and I looked at her and said, “This is the last time I’m giving this talk. I don’t care if you know my mother and my grandmother, but I’m not doing this again.”
She seemed to ignore what I said. “David inhale and exhale. Do that, again, please.” She made me do the breathing exercise three more times, and then she said, “I’m going to stand on this side of your poster board. I’m going to hold it. You hold it on the right side with your left hand, and then you can point to the things you want to show us with your free hand. Each time you point to something on the board I want you to inhale and exhale. That will force you to slow down.”
I gave my speech, again, and before I knew it, I was talking too fast. I really didn’t pay attention to what she said about my breathing. My left hand held up my side of the poster board, and I was pointing at an image on it with my right hand during the talk. Just as I started to stutter, all of a sudden, I felt her right hand on my left hand behind the poster board, and she squeezed it. In surprise, I gulped and took a deep breath and exhaled. Then, she relaxed her hand on my hand.
She nodded to keep going, and I continued talking. A couple of times, I hurried too fast, and she squeezed my hand, each time. No one in the class saw this, and when I took a slow breath each time, she nodded to keep going. I got through the entire talk with her squeezing my hand and forcing me to think about breathing. I only stuttered half as much as I usually did. Even I knew it was the best attempt of the three times I gave that speech.
When I finished, everybody in class clapped. I still remember how good that felt. I remember that feeling of accomplishment, just like it was yesterday. That was the best demonstration of teaching I ever saw. I was an at risk kid at that point in her class, but she believed in me, and she knew my mother.
A week later, she asked me to stay after school, and she wanted to talk about my stuttering. Giving that last talk taught me a lot about controlling my breathing, and I wanted to learn more from her, so my stuttering would drop off even more. Now, I did not mind being late to football practice so much.
I started feeling better about myself. When I told myself to slow down in other classes, inhale and exhale more often when answering questions, and preparing more for each course, so I would be more confident, I stuttered less and less. At the beginning of tenth grade, I really wasn’t aware that many teachers were trying to help me, except my coaches. However, everything she did in that speech class seemed as if she was a speech coach, and I responded to that style of instruction.
It chokes me up to even talk about this situation, today, because she helped change my life. I went in after school, as she requested, and I asked her, “Why do you care about me so much?”
She said, “Yes, I know your mother? Who cares?” We laughed, and she said, “Well I’m puzzled by you. You get pretty good grades, not as good as you could if you applied yourself more.
I said, “Who cares?”
Then she said, “I care.”
I said, “Why do you care?”
She said, “Well, I know Coach Peterson, too”.
“It’s a small school. Everybody knows him.”
“Well, I was talking to him one day, and what he said surprised me.
He said, “On the football field, Martin does not stutter at all. He is our second team quarterback, and he is in the huddle on every down. What kind of quarterback would he be, if he stuttered in the huddle?”
“Why don’t you stutter when you’re playing football?” she said.
I was dumbfounded. I never thought about that before. I only stuttered at school or if I got upset with my dad. I was puzzled. I could not answer her. It took me a couple of weeks to get a grip on this question, and I avoided talking to her about it. She kept bringing it up and having me come in once a week after school. I was so often late to football practice because of my 4’ 10” speech teacher that some of the players began to notice. Then, one day she came out to practice and sat at the 50 yard line and watched us scrimmage.
The next day in class, she said, “You’re pretty good.”
I never considered that 4’ 10” female, Italian, speech teachers, would know anything about football. “Yeah, that’s why I’m the second team quarterback. Who cares?”
“So, why don’t you stutter when you play football?” she said loudly. “I’m going to call your mother tonight at six o’clock, if you don’t answer this question.”
She got me so mad that I could just feel emotion coming from inside my chest. My heart started pounding, and I said, “Damn it; if anybody messes up my football team, I’ll deck ‘em. I care so much about this team. We have worked so hard to be good, and I am tired of losing. I want to win at something in life, and I know more about football than anything else. If those guys on my team don’t pay attention, I will tell them where they messed up, and if they do it again, I’m going to knock ‘em on the ground ‘cause I know every single play for every position. If they don’t perform correctly, they hurt our chances of winning. The quarterback is the coach on the field. I take a lot of pride in that. I love my coaches. They care what I do. They are trying to make me a better person through athletics. I would run through a brick wall for them. They like me. The only other person who cares more about me than they do is my mother. If you call her tonight and tell her bad things about me in your class, she will be so embarrassed in this small town, and I will not come back to this classroom ever again.”
She just sat there and listened. I am sure she thought I was just another testosterone filled teenager, but I saw her eyes change from being hard and angry to ones of acceptance and tenderness. She inhaled slowly and exhaled more slowly. She did that three times. Then, she leaned toward me and said, softly, “Well, why don’t you ever bring that attitude to speech class?”
I really didn’t know what she meant. I said, “What? You don’t want me decking Rufus in the corner ‘cause he laughs at me all the time when I stutter. Do you?”
“No, you have to use your head, not your physical strength, to reach your audience in speech class. Scoring points here is getting the people listening to you to understand what your reason for talking to them is and how they will benefit from taking the time to listen to your presentation.”
I heard the metaphor about scoring points with my audience, and I asked her to tell me some more about what she meant.
She said, “If you play football so well and your teammates know that you know every position, take that attitude into speech class and every class you take in school. Put that attitude into the subject that you’re giving your talk about. Know the inside and the outside of your thesis and all of its connecting points. Anticipate the questions the audience might ask in a derogatory manner to cut down your presentation like a defensive corner back will cut down your pass if you are not on target.”
That was cool. I started thinking about that approach to every speech I gave after that. I improved greatly that year and took speech class again the next year, and I won a speech contest. She took what I was good at and applied it to her subject. She was doing all this juggling of ideas and content to reach me. I will forever be in her debt. In English class, I think I instruct my students in much the same way my coaches and she taught me.