There’s almost a joy in looking at your ignorance and realizing, ‘Wow, we’re going to learn about this and, by the time we’re done, we’re going to really understand and do something great.
I hated public speaking, and it was humiliating trying to get better at it.
Late freshman year in high school, my dad encouraged me to join Speech Club. He thought it would be a good skill for me and valuable for a college application.
I was ignorant how this worked and way behind my peers in the club who joined much earlier, but I started showing up every week to practice for regular public speaking competitions.
My first competition was a Mock Senate. I was supposed to go up in front of the group and argue at least one time like a legislator to convince people to vote with me. I was too intimidated. I didn’t even get up once to speak that Saturday; just spent the day watching.
Weeks later, another competition came up with an easier event: reciting monologues. But it was last minute, and I couldn’t memorize an entire monologue in time. My speech teacher encouraged me to sign up anyway for the experience. It was embarrassing being the only one who had to refer to a book. And, needless to say, I didn’t fare well in the competition.
The next profoundly embarrassing competition was my first Lincoln-Douglas debate. Lincoln-Douglas gets its name from the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. I was under the impression I could take whatever stance I wanted on an issue, even if my opponent had the same. We could both be pro or both be con, but that we’d be judged on our individual persuasiveness and unique ideas.
But during my first match, it became clear I was wrong.
The judges let me know my mistake: I would need to debate with the opposite view of my opponent, regardless of what I truly believed.
I was embarrassed and wanted to quit the competition, but my speech teacher encouraged me to keep going. I did, and still lost the rest of the debates.
As you’d imagine, my confidence at public speaking was low. It got even worse when the next competition came up: Extemporaneous Speaking.
For Extemporaneous Speaking, you’d get a topic picked from current headlines - for example, today it could be “What should the US stance be on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine?” Heavy stuff. You’d have 30 minutes to prepare a memorized speech and be able to answer questions for judges, then repeat the process a few times.
My fellow teammates warned me how terrible my chances were. Other schools dominated this event.
But I showed up, again. Ready to be embarrassed, again. Ready to find out I was doing it wrong, again.
Only this time…
I won first place.
Somehow, among the ignorance and failure I was getting better at public speaking, and managed to beat a lot of great competition.
Speech Club and that speech teacher created one of those formative moments in my adolescence that taught me what happens when I persevere through my ignorance.
Mr. Serpe, a math teacher at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL, who I’ve written about before, created another.
Mr. Serpe was my first high school math teacher.
When I started high school, I seemed light years behind my peers in math ability, and I asked Mr. Serpe if I could quit his class and move to a less advanced version. He wouldn’t have it. Instead he made me show up at his office hours after school. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually Mr. Serpe taught me how to get through Algebra even when I wanted to quit. And I went on to become a great math and science student and an engineer in college.
I was sad to learn Mr. Serpe passed away at age 97 on Saturday, February 15, 2014. He had a fair share of famous students like Bill Murray, Chris O'Donnell and Bob Newhart. I’m positive they remember him.
Like that speech teacher, Mr. Serpe taught a great number of students how to get through ignorance, because one day by the time we were done, we’d do something great.
You can read more about the awesome legacy of James Serpe: here.