Twice a week, every Monday and Friday afternoon since the final week of August and every Monday and Friday afternoon for several weeks to come, 18 brave, inspiring, lovely people take on one of their greatest fears right in downtown Pittston.
And the reason, I hate to admit, is me.
I am their public speaking teacher.
In surveys of humans’ greatest fears, public speaking often comes in first. Death typically ranks anywhere from second to seventh.
“Let me get this straight,” Jerry Seinfeld jokes, “does this mean that at any given funeral, most people in the congregation would rather be the person in the casket than the person delivering the eulogy?”
My students, certainly in the moment they hear their name called to step to the podium, would answer with a resounding “Yes!”
They are taking SPE-125, Introduction to Public Speaking at the new Pittston City campus of Luzerne County Community College. They are taking it because they have to.
A course in public speaking is required not only at LCCC but also at just about every college and university in the country. With few exceptions, the only road to a college degree goes through public speaking.
Students, understandably, ask why. I often wonder about that myself, I tell them. I’m joking, of course. There are many worthwhile reasons for acquiring the ability to speak in front of a group, self-confidence right at the top of the list. There also is nothing quite so invigorating, rewarding and downright freeing as facing a fear and overcoming it.
Still, I make it a point to level with my students, and so I feel compelled to share with them something I find puzzling. As mentioned, the public speaking course at LCCC is required of all students. There’s another course at the college in the Health and Physical Education Department called Human Sexuality. Unlike the public speaking class, the human sexuality class is not required.
I cannot help thinking, “What are the chances any of these students are going to have to give a speech during their lives? And what are the chances they are going to have sex?”
The chances any of them will give a speech may indeed be slim. Less than 5 percent, I’d say. But unfortunately, the opportunity for each of them to give a speech is 100 percent.
I used the word “unfortunately” because I am talking about a specific type of speech: the eulogy.
Why learn to give a speech? The best reason, I believe, is because every one of us, without exception, is going to lose to death someone we love. Many of us already have. And when that happens, there is a good chance that the one person on the face of the earth best qualified to say a few words about the person who has passed, this father or mother, this brother or sister, this best friend or spouse, is you. And if you cannot get up in front of the gathering and do it, you will sit there while someone else does. And probably feel terrible about it.
The way, the only way, to avoid being in this position, is to face that fear of public speaking now. To conquer it once and for all.
It’s not easy. But I see it happen all the time. And the instances are nothing short of heroic.
One, which I’ve come to call my finest hour as a teacher, is about a young man who did what many students do on the days they must give a speech in class: he went into the bathroom and threw up. That’s how nerve-wracking public speaking can be. But this guy’s nerves were so out of control, he’d throw up on days he wasn’t scheduled to speak. He was nervous for everyone else.
On the day of his final speech, he was frozen. “Might as well fail me,” he said from his seat. And he wasn’t kidding.
“Come up here next to me,” I suggested.
Sheepishly, he did. I coaxed a conversation out of him and every time he answered a question, I’d say, “Don’t tell me, tell them.” And I’d turn him to face the class and have him repeat what he’d just said. He was such a sweet kid the whole class was pulling for him. And gave him a standing ovation.
A couple of weeks after the semester ended, I noticed an obituary in the paper that caused my heart to sink. It was this young man’s dad. I went to the viewing and introduced myself to a woman I surmised was his mom. She was. “Oh, you’re his speech teacher,” she said. “I have to tell you, he asked if he could do the eulogy at his dad’s funeral.”
I could not attend, but a friend of mine was there and said the young man’s eulogy was superb. As he talked about his dad, he had the whole congregation in the palm of his hand.
In a perfect world, no one would ever have to deliver a eulogy. In the world we live in, someone has to teach people how. Even if that begins with striking fear into their hearts.