Published: June 14th 2012June 4th 2012
As some of you well know, my idea of fun often includes drastic suprises. Such examples include intentionally not telling my parents I would give my university commencement address, surprising my mom with a cross-country visit for her 60th birthday, and announcing out of the blue that I was quitting my job to move to China. I pulled all of those off without a hitch. I think I do it because I enjoy seeing people's faces light up when they realize the truth.
I now have a failed attempt to add to the list.
I hadn't told the speech team I would be returning for another year. Even though I'd been offered a contract and had accepted, I wanted to be sure I'd signed it before I said anything. As anyone in this business knows, plans can change at the drop of a hat; people come and people go on short notice. I wanted to be 100% certain before saying anything.
On Thurs I signed my contract. I emailed the captain of the team and said that I would be returning in the fall. If they would like me to return as the coach, I would love to do it. While I was 99.9% certain they'd say yes, this is China, and you need to remember the value of face. Just in case they wanted to mix it up, change the program, something else, I wanted to be sure they had an out. I needn't have worried; within an hour of sending my my message, I got a reply from the captain. Since it was so fast, I know she didn't talk to anyone else. She included clapping smiley faces in the email.
I told her I thought it would be fun to announce my return on Monday during our class. Since it's the last class before exams, we planned to have a special topic and then a party. I'd already chosen farewell speeches as the topic. A few students are leaving--and someday others will too--so it seemed a fitting topic. And it also helped me set up the perfect plan.
My plan was that after discussing the topic each student would give a two minute farewell speech. Since only three students are actually leaving the team, everyone else would be needing to come up with pretend speeches. I then announced that after all of their speeches I'd give one. Since I'd never actually given a speech in front of them, I was a bit nerve racked and they were excited. For them, this was an opportunity to see me in action; for me it was a a chance to either prove myself worthy or fail miserably.
My plan had one small trick: I was going to pretend I was leaving the university and then tell them I would be back in the fall. I just had to be convincing. If I had thought about this, I would have realized that I set myself up to fail since most of the students were giving pretend speeches.
The students gave their speeches. Some were funny, some were sweet, and a number were sentimental. A few students talked about their fear of being on the team because of how hard it was, but then how they rose to the challenge. One talked about being afraid of me at first but now she loves me. Another talked about how the first time he met me in English corner two years ago and how I made such an impression; he said hi to me by name for the next year and I never knew who he was. One commented that she was happy I talk fast and normal-- unlike some other teachers--and how my pronunciation is the best. (I'm not sure about that, but I'll take it.) And one talked about how the class and I had changed her life and how she hopes one day I'll meet a man who will make me happy because I deserve nothing but the best. I'd be lying if I said some of these didn't make me a little bit misty-eyed.
By this time it was 8:30. Classes were over, so team members who'd missed class that night for exams started to show up. I'd consumed far too much tea that night in an effort to ward off losing my voice. And, of course, now it's my turn.
I had practiced my speech. Lots of thoughts about how the students meant a lot to me, the fun we'd had, the jokes we'd shared. The second half was about going forth, challenging yourself and others, making a difference. I think sometimes it's easy to forget that what we do DOES matter even if it isn't remarkable. I wanted to instill them with a sense that they matter and that what they do does make a difference. As I delivered it, I could feel all my instincts kicking in, my presence taking over, familiar patterns of speech and gesture returning as though eleven years hadn't passed since my last proper speech. It felt marvelous.
I closed with hoping they'd remember me on this incredible journey, and how I'd remember them. (If that doesn't say, "I'm leaving!" I don't know what does.) I could tell by their faces that the only one who was worried about me leaving was the team captain, the only one I'd told I was staying! I nearly laughed, as I saw her mouth say, "But I thought you said you were coming back..." I felt terrible and wanted to laugh at the same time.
When I announced that after all of this, summer would be over and we'd be together again, with me as their coach, I got the loudest applause I've ever received.
Later, while we were enjoying our snacks and chatting, one of the graduating seniors commented he was disappointed in my speech. I knew it wasn't my best, but ouch. I asked why. He said he'd been hoping for something more personal. A valid point, I guess, but that wouldn't have served the purpose of my prank.
That night I emailed him to say I was sorry he had been disappointed, but that I had meant every word I'd said. I do want him to go out and make a difference and share his ideas.
He replied a day later with this:
"I was kidding about that your speech disappointed me. Your speech was just like the speech I saw on TV, it's such a good example for us!"
Well, then, that's settled. I don't know what speech he saw on TV, but that's a pretty nice compliment. I laughed and told him he needs to work on his sarcasm delivery.