Occasionally, those predictable surveys come out reminding us of what humans fear most. The usual things are on the list: death, heights, the loss of jobs and homes, claustrophobia, war, poverty, pain, the unknown, and an endless menagerie of creatures which make us break out into cold sweat and the shakes. Such items change with the times, but the one phobia almost always at the top of the list is the most dreaded of all.
Back in that distant epoch of time of pterodactyls and actual textbooks, students at Evansville Central High School were required to take speech. You carried it on your schedule either the first or second semester of your sophomore year. There was no debate or discussion about it. No waiver unless your tongue had been cut out by some freak accident with a paper cutter or still reeling from injuries sustained like that frozen flagpole boy in A Christmas Story. There was simply no way escaping it.
Up to that time – and even to this day – I have not been known to possess an unbridled, restrained tongue. It might explain why I have risen to such lofty heights throughout my professional career. But entering this official “talking class” struck fear in my heart, as it did many of my classmates, sharper than Wisconsin cheddar cheese. In the end, we survived the crucible of learning the basics of organizing thoughts, making notes and then standing before our disinterested audience to describe the most mundane of objects of our interest.
But for me, it didn’t end there. Following that class, I thought it might be interesting to join the school’s National Forensics League speech team. I had no real skills to offer; no budding oratorical promise to speak of. Just thought it might be fun. Seemed practical, too, given that my bum knee from Osgood-Schlatter disease put an end to football (the diagnosis coming from a family doctor who later encouraged me to join the Army and pumped me up on steroids to combat mononucleosis a month before I reported for basic training).
But as usual, I digress.
I joined the Central High School speech team, which was coached by Mrs. Martha Mudd. She taught speech and other subjects, but I only had been in one of her English/composition classes before. Mrs. Mudd had flaming red hair and a voice of resonating wisdom and humor.
She tolerated our teenaged silliness and overblown anxieties with more patience than Job, but suffered not a whit of stupidity. She encouraged each of us, made candid suggestions and, most of all, expected you to prepare and do your best. When you’re standing before a handful of note-taking judges on a Saturday afternoon, it makes all the difference.
There were numerous categories of speech presentations you could make in speech competition, from discussion on current events, drama and to extemporaneous topics. So I picked the most logical to fit my irreverent nature: biblical interpretation.
Somewhere along the way before the season ended, I earned my highest award: a second-place ribbon in a statewide meet. Mind you, this was no small gain for a southern Indiana boy pitted against the nasal-voiced, snooty intelligentsia from regions north of the People’s Republic of Bloomington.
I still have that ribbon, though dusty and faded to a pale yellow with time. And I remember a piece of advice Mrs. Mudd always gave to us before a speech meet. To paraphrase it, she would say: You have nothing to be afraid of, okay? Most of the people, especially the judges, are rooting for you!
Looking back, I can only believe that she was something far more important than a speech team coach. She was our cheerleader.
Over the last year, I have reconnected with Mrs. Mudd’s daughter and my former Central High School classmate, mostly through Facebook, and she has kept me updated on her mother.
WHILE VISITING WITH my Evansville family this Memorial Day weekend and reading the Evansville Courier Press with my Mom early one morning, I learned about my former teacher’s passing. In those brief yet eloquent column inches, it recalled a life devoted to family and teaching and service to her nation.
A cliché suggests that good teachers do more than teach; they touch the future.
Martha Mudd did just that with the generations of students who filled her classrooms. In no small way, she taught us not to be so afraid to speak up and take a chance.
Her voice and guidance will resonate through many of us for years to come.