In my former life, in addition to an English teacher, I was a speech coach (some schools call it forensics or declam) for ten years. That afforded me the privilege of working with students, one on one, to put together a presentation with which they would compete every Saturday in February, March and April. In Minnesota, there are 13 categories in which students can compete, which allows for a wide variety of kids to participate. There’s a spot for everyone, which is great – for many kids, this is their only activity. As most folks know, public speaking ranks as one of the top two fears of humans – that and dying. So people who join speech are brave, and I get to witness their courage. I’m always impressed by the depths from which people rise to do extraordinary things.
Mike was a junior in high school when he joined the speech team. He’s blind, and lives with a speech impediment to boot, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He wanted to write his own speech, and so after long discussions of what he had to say, together we decided that he should focus on what it would be like if he could have 24 hours of sight.
It was fascinating to hear his processing – he was describing his girlfriend, her blue dress, the sun – all things he had never seen, but heard and read about. The speech in itself was great – and began, “‘Watch,’ ‘see,’ ‘look,’ ‘glance’….all words that are used regularly when describing the world around us. I have never been able to ‘watch,’ ‘see,’ ‘look,’ or ‘glance.'” It certainly made folks reflect on how they used words like this, and what it meant to those who couldn’t actively participate, literally, in those actions.
Part of Mike’s speech was also the presentation aspect of things – gestures, stance, etc. Although I had coached for a while, I learned a whole new aspect of what it is like to be without sight- body awareness. Gestures did not come naturally to Mike, nor (of course) did standing facing the audience. Posture was not inherent. We worked together twice and three times a week so that Mike could learn to be comfortable with a formal presentation style, and I could learn what made sense for him.
When our team started competing at invitationals, Mike did ok, but not fantastic. Once in a while he would receive a high score from someone who was impressed by him, but he was performing at a strong average. Mike’s teammates were extremely supportive – escorting him to each of his rounds, and making sure someone could help him to the front of the room, and to face him the right way (again, a spatial consideration I took for granted). Mike also impressively strengthened his self-advocacy skills by initializing the requests for help.
Mike managed to make it to the State Speech Contest, to the unbridled joy of his teammates and me (the noise in the auditorium when his name was announced as a qualifier was deafening). Although he didn’t qualify for the final round, I would say that his season was extremely successful and meaningful. I learned so much about my viewpoint of how the world works, and he taught me to expand and grow in that view. Mike’s teammates learned the importance of a “team,” in helping out those who needed it. Mike learned how not to take himself too seriously – he flat out giggled more than once in a practice. It was a wonderful way for me to watch students engage, assist and work with one another, and I am grateful for how it opened my eyes as an educator and a person.