A lesson from children


  • Lifestyle
  • Saturday, 28 Feb 2009

Never one for public speaking, our columnist learns why it can be so rewarding when she delivers a talk to a bunch of 11-year-old students - all 160 of them.

In his heyday, dad could have given Barack Obama a run for his money. A former schoolteacher, he was a natural orator who was much admired for delivering inspiring speeches at school assembly.

His daughter, alas, never did inherit his gift of the gab.

In the course of my life, I’ve had ample chances to speak in public, but I’ve always found reasons to wriggle out of them. Example: when I was president of the English Club in Form Four, I conveniently made myself the reserve debator. I was president so I called the shots, geddit?

Ergo, I’ve pretty much stayed away from the podium — that is, until I became self-employed. As everyone from Barack Obama to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad would testify, the ability to hold court in public is a great calling card, and in my line of work as a freelance writer, I knew I would eventually have to face my bogeyman for the sake of visibility.

God must have ears, because sooner came much, much earlier than I’d expected.

A contact I’d met from an earlier function called me one day and asked if I was keen to talk to some schoolchildren about what it was like to be a journalist. Would I do it?

I said yes without thinking twice. Time to flex those underused vocal chords.

As the gravity of the situation sank in, my bravado started to falter.

This was no ordinary audience. They were children – to be precise, 160 11-year-olds in an international school.

A week before Red Letter Day, I was hit with an acute case of food poisoning.

“Do you think falling sick is a good excuse to opt out?” I wondered out loud over dinner.

“What, you mean YOU’D LIE TO KIDS?” my friend Alan asked incredulously.

Trust Alan — who once said he was so honest, his father should have called him Frank — to pull out the guilt card.

The day arrived with little fanfare, save for the ominous wobble of my tummy, which had been doing flip-flops all the way from my bedroom to the school assembly hall.

As the bright-eyed children trooped in obediently but boisterously in their uniforms, I began to get a really bad feeling that I had grossly miscalculated. Although the syllabus was advanced, they were still kids. When I was their age, I was playing marbles, could barely sit still for two minutes, and switched off at words exceeding two syllables.

Does anyone know what is Dow Jones? Bewildered expressions.

Have you heard of Slate? Or International Herald Tribune? A sea of shaking heads.

My palms began to sweat.

What had my best friend, an experienced presenter, said again? The first rule of public speaking: what does the audience want to hear? Not what the speaker wants them to hear.

I took one last longing glance at my cue cards, where I had painstakingly copied excerpts from respected magazines the night before.

... TED is a mind-blowing, powerful four- day conference where both the speakers and audience are over-achieving, brilliant, and often famous. At the post-conference party, you stand in line with the author of Eat, Pray and Love, and the founders of Google and twitter ...

I crumpled my well-intentioned but utterly useless cue cards. I would have to switch strategies — fast — or let down everybody, especially the kindly teacher, Jon Booton, who had entrusted me with the honour of playing role model to his impressionable children.

I turned to the assembled class and asked them what they wanted to know.

“What was the most dangerous thing you’ve done as a journalist?” one piped up.

Digging into my memory, I told them of the time I nearly spent the night on the streets because I was too stingy to take the taxi after a night assignment.

I told them of the time I climbed a mountain and trekked 13km in the name of work.

“What is your favourite article?”

I showed them the photo of a garden worm which inspired an article about how everyone has a role in this world.

As a chorus of “ooohs” rippled over the crowd, a tiny spark of hope flared. Maybe I could still redeem myself.

When somebody asked, “Who are the most famous people you’ve interviewed?” and I replied, “Um, Kenny Rogers and Orlando Bloom?”, the entire room erupted.

The toll of the bell signalled the end of my session.

The children clapped enthusiastically, in spite of my less-than-sterling performance. Kids they may be, but their chivalrous manners would have done any adult proud.

As they filed obediently out of the hall, I thanked them and packed my things. I became aware of another presence and looked up. A small crowd had gathered around me – students from the audience just now.

“Are you really a journalist?” one little girl asked.

I nodded.

I’ve been asked a lot of strange things, but I didn’t expect her next question.

“Can I touch you?”

“Sure!”

She tentatively tapped me on the arm before dissolving into giggles. “I’m not going to wash my hand after this!”

I smiled indulgently. It was hard to believe that I was once like that too – sweet, innocent and disarmingly honest.

And I had actually considered lying to these kids? I shuddered.

One of the girls thumbed silently through my portfolio of articles, lingering on a picture of me tubing through a river in a tyre.

“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist too,” she said, looking straight at me.

As I write this, the clock says 5.06pm, Feb 17, 2009. It is exactly two hours after I finished my speech at the school, and my feet are barely touching the ground.

What a rewarding experience it had been! While my delivery was certainly not flawless, I had taken a giant step forward in overcoming a lifelong phobia.

The experience also gave me the answer to a question that had long mystified me. It never failed to perplex, and amuse me, that my dad’s eyes would mist over with emotion, every time he talked about his students.

Today, when the children of Garden International School looked up at me with earnest, innocent faces full of hope and wonder, I finally understood why.

Alexandra Wong (bunnysprints.blogspot.com) thinks the bright, inquiring Year 6 children at Garden International School would make fantastic journalists when they grow up.

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