Wednesday, July 6, 2011


In Dedication to My Eighth Grade English Teacher
I remember vividly a particular life-changing moment. It was eighth grade and I was still extremely shy. During a normal day in English class, my teacher, Mrs. Seaman, passed out a book report assignment--a creative, ORAL book report. Horror washed over me. I was a good student when left to work quietly, but speaking aloud, in front of people…that would be unbearable. With trembling fingers I chose the least painful presentation style, skipping News Anchor or TV Commercial, and informed my teacher of my choice. Mrs. Seaman replied with an unusually enthusiastic “Excellent!”
Wearing braces had few positives, but one was leaving school early for orthodontist appointments. Not that school was bad, but avoiding the bus was a treat. Happily climbing into the family car, I told my mother (of stuttering fame) about my day. When I mentioned the oral presentation, she asked with typical motherly interest, “What did you choose?”

The deep pause from mom was a warning and suddenly my stomach swung upside down as she asked the inevitable, “Do you know what dramatization means?”
Of course I do! But my certainty slipped into my rotating stomach and blended into dread as I answered, “I’m going to read it really well.” As those ludicrous words escaped, the truth lept up, waving like crazy to be seen.
“No,” mom answered, the ‘o’ lingering in the air, threatening to suffocate me. By the time the ‘o’ of no ceased to sound, I had glimpsed the beacon of truth leaping about like an insane bug, and sat mute with fear. You’re going to act out a scene from your chosen book.”
Confirmation empowered truth and I slid down the seat crying, “I can’t! NO! NO! I can’t!”
“Ellen,” my mother kindly interrupted my tirade. “Do you remember how pleased Mrs. Seaman was?”
“Yes,” I answered, my voice childish from the affects of a tantrum.
“Do you want to tell her you’ve changed your mind?” I was being reminded, firmly but gently, that I and no one else would tell my teacher. It would be as bad as the oral presentation--maybe worse because it would disappoint Mrs. Seaman. Too chicken to face my teacher, I chose my book and prepared everything a week early. I practiced constantly. The best audience was my visiting grandparents. They smiled with tears in their eyes as I acted out a scene from James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful. The three of us loved James Herriot.
To sooth my anxious soul, I drew pictures to pass around as visual aids. Drawing freehand, my tongue sticking out, I copied photos from a book about James. I chose an aerial view of a Yorkshire farm and a waterfall. If only those were my project!
Too soon the day came. My note cards ready, my bar of soap wet and lying on a paper towel, I began my book report with hands throttling the written words. It was instinct that told me to ignore the bored expressions of my peers. Lifting my eyes over their heads, I performed the whole drunken debacle to Mrs. Seaman, sitting in the back of the room rapturously smiling.
With practiced timing I slurred my words, walked seemingly uphill to a phone (inside a home), and received a “large pancake of a hat” placed gently upon my head by the drunk farmer who’d hosted me with homemade wine. Rushing to an emergency, I described driving whilst watching the headlights weave in and out. At the farm, in an effort to be understood, I loudly requested, ”A bucket of hot water and some soap!” When the big moment came to shoot my wet bar of soap over my shoulder (as I prepared my arm for a calf birthing), the soap was dry.
Staring at the disaster in my hand, my tempo brought to a screeching halt, I gulped one deep breath before cheerfully crying out, “That didn’t work!” Then I promptly crouched down pretending to be the farmers hoping to catch the pesky bar of soap before it disappeared into the mucky corners of the barn. Once the calf was born, I again bore the “large pancake of a hat” being placed gently on my head.
During my finale, proclaiming in the sober voice of Mr. Herriot’s boss that those farmers were Methodists and didn’t believe in drinking, “Good God James, you don’t think they knew?” my entire body was quaking. I finished to the thundering silence of thirteen year-old boredom. My teeth chattering and my head aching, I took my seat immediately in front of a beaming Mrs. Seaman. Without a word, she passed me my grade sheet. Across the top was written, “One Hundred plus, plus, plus, plus!”
I was immersed in adrenaline and pride. I’d done it. And it was actually fun.