It has been almost a year and a half since I finished Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The book piqued my interest, and I wrote a post about it. I went so far as to think that introversion would have been a good high school speech topic. Although I was a bit dismayed to come up with this topic about twenty years too late, the irony of the idea did not escape me. Why was I, a shy, highly sensitive, introvert, thinking fondly of my time on the high school speech team? I thought I should write some more about that.
Those were my intentions back in June of 2012. The lavender and roses were blooming, and I took pictures in the garden. Then life went on, winter came, and spring. The lavender and roses bloomed again. Now they are snug under their blanket of fall leaves, and I really should be blogging about “How to Roast Brussels Sprout for Thanksgiving Dinner” or something like that. But no, today, I am blogging about an introvert on a high school speech team.
How does an introvert participate successfully on the high school speech team?
Many introverts are able to give effective speeches. Susan Cain is a prime example. Her introversion drove her to write a book on the subject, and to date her related TED talk has elicited over 5 million views. How is this possible?
First, there are some introverts who are not necessarily afraid of public speaking. I think I might be one of these. Giving a prepared speech is much different than say, mingling at a party. There are clear roles for a speaker and an audience. You stand and speak. They sit and listen. When you are done, the audience (hopefully) applauds. You smile, thank the audience, and sit down. This seems much safer, to me at least, than mingling at a party.
Second, although many introverts and even a number of extroverts are afraid of public speaking, they can train themselves or receive training to overcome this fear. They are probably still nervous, but the fear is not debilitating. They can speak effectively on a subject that is important to them if they have had time to prepare. This training and support is helpful even if debilitating fear is not an issue. Susan Cain suggests that it is especially helpful for introverts to get the training they need to make public speaking easier. It is this training, I believe, that made my high school elocution success possible and my high school years something I can think of fondly.
My training came in the form of a coach. I woke up this morning thinking of him, and that is why I am writing today about introversion and high school instead of Brussels sprouts and Thanksgiving.
My high school coach sought me out at the end of my freshman year. He wanted me to sign up for debate in the fall. It seems that academically minded students do well on debate teams, and I fit into this category. The only problem is that in a debate you have to speak and you have to make eye contact while you do this.
I signed up for debate beginning in the fall of my sophomore year. It changed the course of my high school career. Oh, I probably would have earned the same grades, but I wouldn’t have had the same experience. It was definitely a change for the better.
At the beginning of tenth grade, I wasn’t really scared about speaking in public, but I wasn’t good at it either. Picture a shy, awkward, underclassman. That was me. Now picture a high school teacher and coach willing to spend time helping this shy, awkward, underclassman because he believed in her. Picture this coach simply talking to the student after school to encourage her to look him in the eye. That was my coach and teacher. Now picture a classroom, across the hall from the cafeteria, with an old couch and an overstuffed chair and all the desks pushed askew, as a safe place for like-minded students to congregate and feel accepted. That was his classroom.
I loved that classroom, and I spent many hours there over the next three years. I came to it early in the morning for “zero hour” debate and speech classes. I usually returned to eat my lunch there with friends. After school, I would often come back to practice before going home. My high school was relatively small, five hundred students in all, and almost everyone on the debate team was also on the speech team and maybe in theater as well. During the fall semesters, I participated in debate alongside my dependable partner and childhood friend, during the spring semesters, I gave informative speeches, and when the opportunity arose, I dabbled in theater. I made good friends, and I had fun. My speaking abilities improved, and I started bringing home trophies and contributing to our team victories. I had an identity, and I liked it.
My teammates, my coach, and I were not all alone in the high school world. We had our assistant coach, Tracy, who was as capable as she was kind. We had our parents, and mine were certainly supportive. My parents let me drive the second car so I could go to school early and come home late, often picking up or dropping off a friend along the way. My mom helped me fine tune my writing, and my dad helped me make my visual aids. We had other teachers. The small school phenomenon meant that students who were in debate, speech, and theater, were also likely in the performing arts group if they were musically inclined. Our eleventh grade English teacher was also our performing arts director. He provided us with meaningful opportunities and inspired us to do our best.
If you, Dear Reader, were a member of this high school support group, thank you.
Most of the trophies I brought home are gone now. Those that are left are somewhere in the attic. But tucked in my jewelry box next to a lock of my firstborn’s hair, I have something better: One day, after an event, our coach sat down with a legal pad and wrote little notes to everyone who had participated. My note said Deb-nice job again. The fact is, I hadn’t given a particularly stellar performance at this event. I hadn’t brought home an award. It didn’t matter. I still got a note. My coach still believed in me. I kept that note in the pocket of the skirt I was wearing that day until I “grew out of” my teenage clothes. It is well-worn and wrinkled, and now it is safely tucked away with my keepsakes, much like the lavender bushes are tucked away under the fall leaves.
Encouragement is a valuable commodity, and encouragement given to a teenager is especially precious. One morning during the winter of my senior year, I arrived for our zero hour class in particular need of this precious commodity: I was convinced that the speech I had worked so hard on was no good. We were given an in-class assignment that day and uncharacteristically, I couldn’t do it. I just sat there, teary-eyed, paralyzed with self-doubt. My coach kept me after class, and he and Tracy asked what was up. They told me everything would be all right and sent me on to my first hour class in a somewhat better frame of mind. I never did quite as well as I hoped to with that speech, but my coach and Tracy were still right. I did well enough, and the world did not end when I didn’t make it to the final round of the state tournament. Everything was still all right because I was part of something bigger. I was part of a team, and I was valued and accepted, imperfections and all.
In retrospect, my early morning breakdown was perhaps a foreshadowing of the depression and anxiety that would descend during part of my adulthood. For a few years that paralyzed feeling became all too common. Perhaps, if as an adult, I could have continued my visits to the classroom across from the cafeteria, I would have fared better. . . . That, of course, is fantasy. The high school is far from my current home. It has been remodeled, and the classroom, as it was, is no longer there. My teacher and coach has retired and is hopefully fishing in relative peace and anonymity.
I miss him.
He took a shy, introverted student, and he taught her to make eye contact and deliver a speech. More than that, he gifted her with confidence and a sense of self. He gave her a place in the high school world. This thank-you is probably far too public for someone trying to go fishing in relative peace and anonymity, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to share this part of my story. It is much more interesting than Brussels sprouts.