Thursday, October 3, 2013

To this very day

Essay by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
I was standing in line at the post office waiting to mail a copy of my book, Exotic Destinations (And Then Some Publishing LLC, 2011) to my sister in Kanab, Utah, and as I looked back to see how many people were lined up behind me, a woman caught my eye. She was staring at me as if looking at someone she knew well. While looking at her (I was a bit perplexed), she slowly raised her right hand to her mouth, put her thumb behind her front teeth, curled her index finger over the front of her teeth, then thrust her hand out as she pointed at me with her index finger as if saying to me, "Yes, you!"

Suddenly it dawned on me. That woman in line was a student of mine more than 20 years ago. Not only was she enrolled in my required, basic, speech-communication class at Bowling Green State University, but she was present for my once-in-a-lifetime, lecture experience.

To relate this experience, I need to do two things: First, I need to tell you a story. Second, to tell this story I need to quote from a speech I gave. These two things are directly related, because the story is the final portion of the speech.

I gave this speech almost a half-dozen years ago. The title is "Sticky Ideas: Low-Tech Solutions to a High-Tech Problem," and it was published in Vital Speeches of the Day (August 1, 2007, pp. 73-78. The speech was then reprinted (with permission) in a popular textbook, Public Speaking: An Audience-Centered Approach 8e, by Steven A. and Susan J. Beebe (Boston: Pearson, 2012), pp.410-414. The only reason I mention the publication of the speech is that Vital Speeches is a prestigious place for getting a speech published, and Beebe and Beebe’s textbook is one of the top textbooks in the field of speech communication. To be selected to be one of only five sample "Speeches for Analysis and Discussion" in a 440-page textbook (in an 8½-inch x 11-inch format—larger than the normal size of textbooks) and one of those five speeches is Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech, shows you what professional writers in the speech-communication discipline think of this "Sticky Ideas" speech.

Now, for the story. I quote the speech directly:

"To preface my story, you need to know that one of the major fears people have about giving a speech is: "What happens if I forget what I’m going to say?" or "What happens if I lose my place?" or "What happens if I draw a complete blank?" It is the fear of what do I do in case of an emergency—or, I don’t want to lose face in front of my listeners, especially if they are a group of my peers.

"What you see before you right now is a handicapped person—especially handicapped when it comes to being a public speaker. (Pointing to my four front teeth) I have no front teeth. The situation is in the process of being remedied; my son-in-law is an oral surgeon, and he is making implants to support permanent front teeth, but let me get back to the story.

"About fifty years ago, when I worked at one of the first McDonald’s restaurants—the first one in Ann Arbor, Michigan—a couple of us workers were fooling around in the back room fighting. Suddenly, and without warning, a worker by the name of Sonny, raised up his elbow and broke off my front teeth. That began close to fifty years of difficulty.

"What the dentist did was to use the good roots of the teeth to drive pegs into them to support pegged teeth. My two front teeth were pegged together along with my lateral incisors—for those of you into the language of dentists.

"Well, one day while lecturing, the pegs came loose, and the teeth would not stay in place, so that when I talked, the teeth would drop down into my mouth. Now, what I have not told you about my lecture situation is that I had to give the exact same lecture five times a week because Bowling Green, at that time, did not have a venue large enough to hold all the students enrolled—close to 1500 students. There were just over 300 students present on this particular day, and I could not postpone or delay the lecture; I had to proceed forward and finish the remaining 30 minutes of lecture material, because they would be held responsible for it on the next exam.

"I had no choice, so I removed the teeth, and I talked for 30 minutes without my front teeth. Since I made light of the situation, so did my students, and with every lisp we all laughed at first until we became accustomed to it—together.

"But, what I did at the close of the lecture—something that occurred to me right off the top of my head—I would like to do now with everyone here and everyone who may read this speech in the future. Here is what I told my students: Because this is a unique experience—it has never happened to me before, and I hope it never happens again, to be sure—I think we should have a way to signal each other. That is, you should have a way to tell me if we ever meet again, that you were part of this very special experience. So, using the thumb of your right hand, place it behind your front teeth and curl your index finger over the front of your front teeth. Then, bring them forward as if you were taking them out and uncurl your index finger and point right at me.

"For several years after that experience, I would meet students on the sidewalks, in restaurants and stores, even once at Cedar Point, and we would share that special time, and we would simply smile—knowing that we had shared a secret message that both of us understood. Now, you have a way, too, to share this special time."

Standing in line at the post office, close to twenty years after this happened (I have a set of four, implanted teeth securely in place as I write this essay), was totally unexpected, caught me completely by surprise, and brought back those vivid memories of standing in front of 300-350 students at a time, giving lectures on speech communication.

One has no idea the emotional impact that such an experience can have on students. To this day, I’m amazed. I am also pleased that I retired from teaching in 1996 and now write full time. To this very day, this was the worst lecture experience I had during my 22 years as a large-group lecturer, and the worst, too, after teaching close to 80,000 students over 30 years of teaching experience.

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At Wikipedia , the essay "Emotion and Memory," explains how emotions can have a profound effect on memory.

Helena M. Mentis, Human-Computer Interfaces Group, Lockheed Martin – Maritime Systems and Sensors, in her essay, "Insight into Strong Emotional Experiences Through Memory," discusses a number of relevant issues: "Numerous studies have shown that emotionally rich events in one’s life are remembered more often and with more clarity and detail. . . Other studies have supported these findings and assert that the type of emotion is not as important as the level of arousal when the memory is formed. . . . More importantly, emotionally tagged memories seem to be forgotten more slowly then those formed at a time of less intense affect."

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Copyright October, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC


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