A Speech Unveiled

Well, I did it. My parents came too. It was surreal. 

What is it, you ask? I’ll tell you. 

But first, some back story. 

Way back in January, we received notice of this year’s Toastmasters competitions – Evaluation and International. In the Evaluation Contest, a guest speaker is brought in to deliver a speech, which is then evaluated in turn by each of the competitors, while the others sit ensconced in a separate room. It’s a lot of fun, and I considered competing in it too. But my real interest was in the International Contest – I enjoy its allure. 

The International Contest has such a lofty name because it carries with it the potential to compete on the international stage. You can see a selection of past winners on YouTube – I’ve watched them time and time again myself. They are engaging, instructive, theatrical – very much a performance. 

An international speech is a story worth telling, one that runs the audience through an array of emotions in seven brief minutes. They usually revolve around a transformative personal experience, from whence this emotional array derives. I think it’s the epitome of solo stagecraft – every movement has an impact on your delivery. It’s the most layered and nuanced bit of writing I’ve ever done. 

Anyway, I competed at my club on Monday – I performed that piece of nuanced writing. My parents were in attendance; they came to Dallas on a whim, but this speech was one of their compelling reasons. I was glad to have them. 

We had three other speakers. Of them, one is qualified to progress to the next level of competitions, and he surprised us by registering when he showed up to the meeting. Whoa. I’m really proud of my Toastmasters club. The other two guys spoke for the opportunity to practice; they haven’t hit the threshold required to advance just yet, but they’re hungry. One of them gave his first speech ever in front of a group, and he killed it. I admire the strength of will that he demonstrated. Toastmasters is great for nurturing your faith in humanity. All three were worthwhile, relatable, and engaging stories. I enjoyed them immensely. 

And then I was up. We’d drawn lots at the beginning of the meeting, and I’d gotten the coveted slot – last in presentation, first on the mind. The only drawback was that I was hungry, but couldn’t eat the delicious chocolate chip cookies that Amanda baked because I didn’t want to gunk up my vocal cords. I’m a singer; I’m licensed to be a bit dramatic. But I didn’t feel any nerves until I was standing awaiting my introduction. I’d been preparing for this moment for two months. 

The air in the room shifted palpably. We’d heard about attending church as a gay couple; the importance of sports to character development; and Europeans cheering for Martin as he huffed up the hill in his second attempt to bring his wife a glass of champagne. Now, the topic was grim:

At 9:01 on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh seared the nation’s psyche.

I survey the audience – hands had drawn to chests in response to emotional upheaval. My audience is largely my parents’ age; they got the reference. I continue: 

He had detonated a truck packed with explosives near a federal building in Oklahoma. The percussion was so great that it struck a 3.0 on the Richter scale, 16 miles away. It left scores dead, hundreds wounded, and a thousand homeless. It was the worst act of domestic terrorism to date. I was six.  

I stood, arms at my side, until the Richter reading. Then, I lifted one arm and extended it slowly away from me, stressing those sixteen mile. The floor was mine.  

I don’t remember that, nor the trial that followed; I was just too young. What I do remember is his execution. The day was June 11, 2001; I was twelve. Watching the news, what struck me most were his last words: Henley’s Invictus, a defiant declaration of self determination: 

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul

Finger to chest emphatically, survey the room. Eye contact is powerful. 

McVeigh gave the warden a handwritten copy before he was strapped to the chair; he died, but his poem lived on. I was intrigued; I quickly put it to memory. It really scared my mom. 

Three months later, the towers fell. 

Nearly eighteen years later, that emotion is still raw. I let it course over me, through me. Pause for dramatic effect. I continue: 

This, too, I remember. I was at school, seventh grade. I was also in New York, albeit several hours from the attack. This was before cell phones; my school broke the news at lunch: they gathered us together to deliver it once. 

I forget the speaker’s name; we called her Lord Farquaad. Shrek was big in my family then, and Lord Farquaad was the ogre’s absurd antagonist. We could relate. But Lord Farquaad spoke now, and her topic demanded gravity: 9/11 eclipsed Oklahoma immediately and viscerally. I was emotionally struck, but not externally impacted. Some of my peers were not so fortunate. Hurt was everywhere. My childhood died that day; such evil shook my young soul. You too?

Lord Farquaad got a hearty laugh; I let it run full cycle before resuming. By the paragraph’s end, I had my audience near tears. You too? They nodded in somber accord. Pause for reflection. Resume: 

9/11 did not recede. Rather, it swelled into a crescendo of the 24-hour news cycle: I saw the towers fall a hundred times; I heard New Yorkers rally together with love; I sensed the drums of war beating on the near horizon. 9/11 dramatically informed my life. In response, I turned inward. In 2002, we invaded Afghanistan. In 2003, we invaded Iraq. The weight of the world fell on my shoulders. Singing was my escape. 

Tempo, tone, intensity – I leveraged that crescendo to my advantage, then pulled out back to address its impact on me. Scene change: 

In the fall of 2002, before Iraq, I was in Once On This Island, our middle school musical. I was a lead, one of four strong singers. At our director’s behest one day, we each sang an audition on audio cassette. I was more thrilled to record than I was to audition: this was a first! Because of it, I can proudly say that I have once done more with a cassette tape than just destroy it! Maybe you can relate. But I digress.

At 30, I’m one of the younger people in the room. The cassette tape flies. 

In January, my mother got a call: I alone had been chosen for a national honor choir, singing tenor. She was elated; we danced around the room in ecstatic joy – hers more than mine. Joy felt unattainable those days; it was a harsh winter, and I was prone to seasonal depression. But puberty had transformed me, and I was no longer a tenor. I was a bass – a bass who was going to New York!

Puberty’s a funny word, and it did happen then; it threw a wrench in my plans, but eh. That choir was one of the great privileges of my young life. Few things were of greater developmental import:

February came, and with it, my big break. I still wonder at the timing. War in Iraq was imminent, and teens were singing for peace next to the two craters of the towers while armed troops stood on street corners and people flowed past them in protest. It was a tumultuous time. It was a sacred time. 

I’m ever so grateful that I run. Try saying that mouthful in one emphatic breath. Pivot to the divine:

It was then that I first sang the prayer of St Francis: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.’ His words rang truer than anything I’d ever known: they soothed my shaken soul; they still do. I learned then that I could captain my soul and share it too. My mother’s worry was allayed; I could be unconquerable and kind, a steadfast warrior for peace.

Resolution. Yes, I sang. It took a lot of discipline not to eat that cookie. It paid off. 

Epilogue and charge:

Because of 9/11, I became a soldier. I commissioned from West Point speaking Arabic, determined to use my gifts for good. Because of St Francis, I had the wisdom to do it well. And I did: I deployed to Afghanistan, where Arabic is the language of God. With it, I served Afghan and American alike. Pain had led me to this place; love was my response. Pain in this life is a given; love in this life is a choice. Pain is all around us; what do you choose? 

I cede the floor.

The club transitions to a vote. Once complete, ballot counters collect all ballots and retire to another room to tally them. The Master of Ceremonies introduces the hosts of contestants to the audience with a brief series of questions; it’s a chance to get to know the speakers a bit. I am last. Scott queries, ‘how’d a redhead star in a show about Pacific Islanders?’ I was blue. ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing.’ Yeah, I grew up in the shadow of Ithaca College and Cornell – there were lots of amazing people there. He recedes to his own private reverie; in ways, my childhood is a gay guy’s dream. Dani shakes him out of it.

My mother speaks: ‘I need to give a speech to explain this speech. I just wanted my son to be happy!’

My father relates how my scout troop chose to give up a planned boating weekend on Cayuga Lake to raise money for the Red Cross at the mall. It was a tender and touching moment – fuel for phase two of my speech.

The ballot counters return, signaling the end of our guest commentary. They deliver their results:

In third place, Martin! In second place, Tim!

In first, me. James. 

Now the real work begins. The speech above is a monologue, more or less. I’ve enlisted my mentor to help me turn it into a dynamic back-and-forth between me and my audience, one in which their participation is solicited time and time again to keep their interest. Writing and the spoken word demand different treatments: one allows you the luxury to languish in the lushness of the prose, rereading at will. The other is a fleeting moment, vocalized once and then gone. It kind of reminds me of the blue accelerator pads in an old racing game I had – use them or fall behind.

I can’t go on to the third level of competition this year; I’ll be in Germany for a dear friend’s wedding, and I won’t miss it for anything. But I’ll be damned if I don’t try to win what’s coming all the same. I’m tickled by the thought of presenting this to Texas crowd. Yeeehaw! 

Wish me luck!

James

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