Speech people are crazy. My high school speech teacher was an arrogant, insane bald man who had a sticker on his door that read, “Caution: Sarcastic and Cynical” and gave demonstration speeches on twisted topics like execution methods.
My college speech teacher was an old, fat guy whom the whole class found utterly idiosyncratic. He was obsessed with outlining and drilled us like fifth-graders. The only criticism he ever had for me was, “Smile!”
When I learned that my student teaching cooperative teacher was the head speech coach, I expected to meet a strange personality. I couldn’t have prophesied with more accuracy. When I met Mrs. Trion, her blonde-died-over-gray hair was piled in an up-do and she donned a Christmas vest over a flowing-collared blouse. She was thoroughly sanguine and indelibly talkative. Her teaching methods reflected this, in a way I admired but her students confessed they found “weird.”
One particular occasion saw her expounding on a personal connection to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
“Have you ever done something irrational because you just felt drive to do it?” she asked with all the theatrics of a drama speech in her voice.
I thought it was a pretty good question, something we can all relate to, but alas!
They were seniors and it was May. Their stupor was impenetrable.
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better student-teaching experience. Mrs. Trion was sweet, helpful, and easy to work with, encouraging but never over-bearing. I’m truly grateful that I was paired with such a good teacher and kind woman. She would talk my ear off when all I really wanted to do was grade papers, but it was good for me, because teaching is much more relational than it is functional. And I’m more functional than I am relational. To be fair, she’s one of the most sane speech coaches I’ve known.
My experience in the speech world was limited to judging in one tournament, observing Mrs. Trion coach, and moderating discussions in her speech classes. I consistently resisted my high school teachers’ attempts to persuade me to join the speech team. Spending Saturday at school just didn’t sound fun, even to a nerd like me. So when the head speech coach, Melanie Fitzgerald, called to invite me to a luncheon with the other speech teachers, I figured I knew what to expect.
As I made the long drive to her home, I tried to not think about the social awkwardness I was about to face. She was always so nice on the phone that I wasn’t nervous, but I’m no social butterfly, so meeting new people inevitably put my stomachs in knots.
I passed her house just as I saw her waving to me. She’s going to think I can’t follow directions, I thought, embarrassed. I started to park in the street, but she waved me into the driveway.
“Hi, how are you?” she greeted me in her raspy voice. Her short stature and large head gave her a comical appearance which her voice only enhanced.
“Good, how are you?” Little did I know how many times I would recite this in the coming year. Life demands such pleasantries, of course, but I never delivered this line as frequently or mechanically as I did as I did in the hallways of —– High.
“Oh, you look so nice. You didn’t have to dress up for us,” she said as she noted my outfit. I was wearing a skirt, short-sleeved sweater, and one of the two necklaces I own.
“I don’t mind. I’ve been dressing like a teacher since I was eight,” hoping the self-directed joke would distract from my awkwardness. Admitting my deep and long-running nerdiness probably didn’t help. Actually, I’d deliberated about how to dress and figured that, as the newbie, I’d much rather be overdressed and feel like a geek, than underdressed and feel like a bum.
She laughed and moved on, “I still have to bring the food out.”
I helped her carry enough food to feed an entire English department to a table in the middle of her spacious lawn. She gestured to the large inflatable pool where her kids were swimming.
“That’s our ghetto pool,” she joked. “It keeps them happy and we don’t have to deal with the hassle of a real pool.”
Just then, an SUV pulled into the driveway and a small, wiry woman with blond hair and a serious tan emerged, followed by a boy who closely resembled her, and another one who didn’t. The boys immediately splashed into the pool.
As she approached, I realized I really had overdressed; she was wearing flip-flops, a short denim skirt, and a tank top that revealed a lizard tattooed onto her shoulder. She’s a teacher? I couldn’t help but wonder.
“Hi, I’m Lindsey,” she stuck out her hand and gave a firm shake as I introduced myself. We sat down, waiting for the third and final coach to arrive.
“How was the race on Saturday?” Melanie asked her.
“Oh, it was good. Eli won, but Jonah came in second to last.”
“Yeah, Jonah’s just not as strong as Eli. He’s a beanpole, just like Greg.” She turned to me to explain, “Eli’s my son and Jonah’s my fiancé’s son. They’re both seven.”
“It seems like they get along,” I observed, trying to make conversation.
“Yeah, they have a really good time together. They’re just not good at the same things.”
“Lindsey and her son race BMX,” Melanie elucidated. Again, she’s a teacher?
“When are you getting married?” I asked.
“In June. Less than a year now.”
“That’s so exciting,” I said, trying to sound genuinely interested. For some reason, I never sound excited or sympathetic, however heartfelt my sentiments may be.
“Yeah, Greg’s a really great guy, way better than Eli’s dad.” I’m not going to touch that with a ten-foot pole, I determined.
I wondered if she’d been married before, but didn’t ask. I looked up to see an imposing woman in Capri pants, an earth-tone tee, and bohemian accessories walking toward us. She was at least six feet tall.
“Hey, Sloane!” Melanie greeted her.
“Hey, Fitz!” she called back.
“How do you like my ghetto pool?”
“Looks great.” She reached the table and extended her large hand to shake mine. “Nice to meet you. Welcome to the world of speech.”
“Thanks,” I lied, anything but grateful.
“How was your date?”
“It was pretty good. He is so fine,” she said with all the drama of a teenage girl. “I enjoy talking to him, but I think he’s a Democrat.”
“It’s getting harder and harder to find Republican hippies,” Melanie said. I was surprised to hear a debate coach/teacher with such political sympathies.
“I know, I think it’s impossible. I’m never going to get married.”
“Never say never; you’ll find someone,” Lindsay gushed.
“Whatever. Between coaching and grad school, I don’t need any more commitments.”
“You’ll find your Republican hippie,” Melanie reaffirmed, and then reminiscenced, “I used to be a Democrat, but by the time you’re living in a big house and making a certain income, you have to admit that you’re really a Republican.”
“You’re married, aren’t you?” Sloane turned her attention toward me.
“Yes, just since January.” I almost felt like I should apologize.
As soon as we started in on Melanie’s elaborate spread of various sandwiches, salads, veggies, and dips, the kids suddenly lost interest in the ghetto pool and swarmed the table. Melanie’s younger daughter closely resembled her, with thick dark hair framing her wide face. “Mommy, I want a cookie,” she whined.
“You need to eat a sandwich first,” Melanie responded calmly. The girl reluctantly obeyed and ran off with her sandwich precariously balanced on a paper plate. Meanwhile, her older daughter waited patiently, her thin, serious face watching as Lindsey made sandwiches for her boys, who were also more interested in cookies than real food.
“They’re so used to organic, all-natural, sugar-free food that when they see junk they go crazy,” Lindsey explained. Yeah, you do look like the organic health nut type, I thought, noting her muscular arms and trim physique. I hope I look that good after I have a kid.
“I met Samantha on the last day of school,” Melanie chattered. “She’s the other new, young English teacher. She’s going to do the yearbook. I don’t envy her that job.”
Was yearbook really worse than speech? I wondered. At least I wasn’t solely responsible for the speech team. I didn’t really have to know what I was doing with these three around. “She carries herself like a speech person; she’s really cute and confident and outgoing.” I don’t think she could have chosen three better words to strike insecurity in my heart: those were three qualities I desperately wanted, but continually lacked.
“How do you feel about school starting?” Lindsay asked.
“I feel overwhelmed, but I think I just need to get in there and start teaching,” I said, deeply appreciative of her concern.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I still feel like that, even though this is my third year.”
“This is only my second year in this district,” Melanie chimed in. “It’s really different from where I taught before. It’s more demanding, but the kids are better, so I can actually teach more.”
“I’m going on ten years,” Sloane said, “and I don’t play their games. Don’t worry, and don’t listen when people say you’re going to get fired ‘cause you’re new. Just do your job and you’ll be fine.”
In the midst of trying to take this comforting message to heart, I discerned the usual teacher-resentment toward the administration.
“This is going to be a crazy year,” Melanie said. “I really don’t know where the money’s going to come from. We’ll have to do fund raisers and get the booster club to raise money, too. Since the levy failed, our funding was cut, so we’re getting way less money than last year. We have some left in our account from last season, but I’m going to have to talk to Rob about how much we’ll get this year,” she concluded, referring to the principle.
“I just don’t want to see kids who make States or Nationals pay their own way,” Lindsay said.
“I know, I really want to save for that throughout the year, so we can help them out. Rob is really supportive of our team,” she explained to me. “Speech and debate is a big deal here; we were fifth in the state last year. He always wants the tournament results first thing Monday for the announcements on Tuesday.”
“So what are your ideas for fund raisers?”
“I really want to make the kids do the work. It’s their team, and we have enough to do. But I don’t want them going door to door; that just doesn’t seem safe anymore, and I don’t think parents want their kids doing that. The first thing we’re going to do is a garage sale this summer. We’ll probably do some kind of food sales, and maybe an event with a raffle, and have parents donate prizes. I’m going to take care of the organization stuff with fund-raising. I might need your help executing it, but I’ll do all the paperwork.”
I was relieved to hear this, but tried not to show it. I didn’t want to look like a slacker; I’m not a slacker. But I was overwhelmed and definitely didn’t want to deal with more details than absolutely necessary. And I didn’t go to college to run garage sales.
They proceeded to gossip rapidly about speech kids like teenage girls at a sleepover. I tried to move my left arm out of the sun to avoid sunburn. At the same time I felt a headache coming on, triggered by two of my greatest enemies: sun and stress. After this I had scheduled to go see my friend who was home from college, and I was already late. I never thought I’d be here this long. They just kept going and going, and I started thinking about everything I could be accomplishing, the lessons I needed to plan and books I needed to read and questions I needed to get answers to….After about forty minutes of gossip, Sloane remembered I was there.
“We’re probably going to scare her away,” she joked.
I felt like I needed to say something, so I offered, “No, I like listening and getting some background about the kids.” When in doubt, throw out a buzzword. Background seemed to suit perfectly.
But Sloane wasn’t done sympathizing with my shy self.
“We must be too loud for you,” she said.
“No, I know speech people are crazy,” I said. Just kidding. I only thought this, but decided on a more tactful response: “I’m not outgoing, but I’ve always enjoyed talkative people.” I hoped I didn’t sound like I was on a reality dating show.
Melanie continued chatting after we’d carried the leftovers to her kitchen.
“Don’t get overwhelmed,” she reassured me. “You’re going to be fine. It’s a lot at first, especially in this district, but most of the kids are great, and you just have to take it one step at a time.”
“I’m trying to. Thanks.” I appreciated the encouragement.
“We all feel overwhelmed, between teaching and speech and family, and Sloane’s in grad school, and I just need to write my thesis, but I haven’t been able to find the time.”
She should have quit while she was ahead. I was actually starting to feel somewhat reassured. Then I realized that these women, who were years into their careers, were still desperately busy, trying to hold their lives together while their jobs sapped every bit of life and energy from them. I didn’t know what to say, so I waited, counting on Melanie to fill the silence before it became awkward. She came through.
“Rebecca thinks you’re brilliant; she was going on about how you got a perfect Praxis II score.”
“Yeah, that whole testing process is kind of a joke,” I said, trying to take the attention off of myself. “I mean, just because you’re a good test-taker doesn’t mean you’ll be a good teacher.”
“True, but at least it helped you get the job.” And there you have it: they hired me because of the score that I was told didn’t mean anything. I was hired because I’m naturally a good test-taker. Perhaps that is oversimplifying; I knew someone who worked there, and I didn’t blow the interviews. But her statement probably revealed some of the school’s most deep-seated values.
At least it worked out for me.
Or did it?