I’ve always had fun with language. I am not sure when it started, because I was a very shy, quiet boy who was reticent to engage much with others. Though early on I had respect for the written word, which probably had a lot to do with my dad reading to me every night since I was a very young child. But it was not only the reading to me that made an impression. I also remember the floor of dad’s closet. In a space that is normally occupied with shoes or perhaps boxes of old clothes, his was covered with stacks of old books. He was always reading something new he found second hand, was given to him, or had borrowed from someone. The topics were usually natural sciences such as geology, biology, botany, or astronomy, but ranged to everything from old cars, history, anthropology, to the space program. He was always learning something new and loved sharing his knowledge with me and my brother. Learning something new was to him its own reward, I think.
I suppose it was therefore inevitable that I turned into something of a bookworm as I grew a bit older. One of the first places that I remember spending much time outside of school and home was the library. I was lucky that it was a pleasant walk of only a few blocks from my home. I was always on the lookout for something new and interesting while browsing the stacks and periodicals, to stumble randomly across something that caught my attention. The ability of simple prose to paint a vivid picture fascinated me, whether it was read in The Hardy Boys or in the dry, technical descriptions often found in the SIRS binders (what we had before Wikipedia).
At the time, I realized only that I loved to learn new and interesting things. That the process of reading itself and enjoying language might be part of the reward did not occur to me. In fact I recall doing a lot of theme writing in middle school and being bored out of my mind doing it. Once I was so annoyed with the repetitive nature of writing themes that I went out of my way to make my work as dry, emotionless, and precise as possible as a kind of passive-aggressive statement only to receive an A and additional accolades from the teacher about how clearly I had written. Perhaps this is why writing itself didn’t hold my interest.
Although I was a timid kid, the ability of language to be engaging in the spoken as well as written form was not lost on me. My family has given me many fine role models beyond just my fantastic parents. Although mom would be happy to tell old family stories and dad was always excited to regale us with the latest bad joke he heard, neither of them were raconteurs.
My uncle Kenny, however, was a natural storyteller with a booming but warm voice accentuated by an impeccable sense of dramatic timing. I remember so many summer evenings camping together with my brother, dad, Kenny, and my cousins when we would be around the fire nearly in tears from laughing so hard at a story spun by Kenny.
My uncle Evan also had a kind of presence that held my attention. Even as a kid I saw how he became center of any conversation. A storyteller as well, he was also one to dole out a healthy portion of good-natured ribbing to anyone including himself. He is the first person I can remember making a joke at my expense but then immediately turning the insult on its head with a burst of laughter and a hug in his great bear arms.
I saw how language could make people laugh from Kenny. I learned that you have no right to make any one else laugh if you can’t laugh at yourself from Evan. From both I had models of how spoken language can weave a story, bring people to laughter or to tears, and to consider ideas from a different perspective.
For a long time however, I remained too shy to do anything with this fascination. However sometime in middle school everyone was compelled to give a presentation or speech as part of our coursework. We also had to do a dramatic reading or interpretation of a selection of prose or poetry. I remember preparing endlessly as I dreaded the day when I had to get in front of my peers. I have no idea how I actually did because all I could remember from that day was seeing how a number of my friends gave their presentations so naturally. Didn’t they see all of us watching their every move? Didn’t they see us scrutinizing their delivery? Weren’t they as terrified of standing before the class as I was? They didn’t just give a speech. They performed. That day, I knew I wanted to learn how to do the same.
So I threw myself into it in high school and became a drama dork. Against my fears I joined the forensic team (forensic in the classical sense of the term coming from the latin forensis or “in open court, public”). After some cold sweats during improv exercises I found myself signing up for more. On dark, cold Saturday mornings when most teens would be gratefully sleeping in, I was up earlier than on a normal school day to travel to some speech competition. Initially I leaned on a dear old friend to do duo interpretation of old comedy stage classics. After some time I was also trying my hand at dramatic interpretation, humorous interpretation, and eventually discovered the joy of extemporaneous speaking.
Rhetoric competitions, literary club, essay writing competitions, the fall play… Good lord, I was a dork. But it was so much FUN. For a naturally quiet kid, participating in these activities allowed my analytical brain observe, learn, test, and adapt in a very methodical way to the ostensibly nonscientific process of speech and drama. And though I was never an unhappy kid, I developed a kind of exuberance from a combination of the excitement of finally discovering something that I had theretofore had missed out on along with a growing sense of self-confidence in my ability to speak before and with people.
Over the years however these formative experiences have slipped further and further from my conscious mind, which I think is only a natural but regrettable result as one moves on and enters the working world. Therefore it was with some pleasure that as I was rooting around in the attic the other day, trying to find a particular travel bag amongst the various and sundries, I unearthed a box containing a small part of my adolescent life including old duo interpretation scripts, photos, playbills, and even some of my essays. As I sorted through that box and began to read pieces of old scripts a wide and familiar grin began to spread across my face as I realized that I could continue the lines from memory.
And here’s the strange thing: it never really occurred to me until I stumbled upon that box just how much these experiences have served me in life. Trying to convince people on making a particular decision? You have to know your audience and how to choose your language. Ever been in a disorganized meeting going nowhere? Sometimes you just have to take the floor and lead the conversation. Ever have to give a presentation to the wider business on the results of a project that you led or research that you have conducted? You have to know how to avoid the podium and engage the audience directly and not only on the mundane facts, but also develop rapport to excite them about the content. And I challenge anyone to introduce me to a successful IT consultant who is not also a good performance artist.
So let this be my paean to speech and drama and also to those teachers and parent volunteers who guided and encouraged us so long ago. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t also express my gratitude to those friends with whom I often shared a stage or sat behind the word processor in my earliest collaborations. I am keenly aware that it is largely due to them that I take so much pleasure today in writing.
By a proud National Forensic League member