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The Great Orator
“What year did you graduate?”
“2002,” I said.
“Wow, you’re old!”
Thus went my conversation with a high schooler two weeks ago while visiting my alma mater, Osbourn Park, to speak to three classes about survival. Just three days prior I had won my Toastmasters International club’s prized “Best Speaker” award. I won for my Ice Breaker, the first Toastmasters speech. I stood in front of twenty club members and delivered a well-rehearsed, six-minute talk on my cancer story, from diagnosis through surgery.
Afterward, I received written comments such as, “Great inspirational speech. You helped me put my life in perspective.” And, “BRAVO! I needed an inspirational speech tonight and you really delivered. Thank you!”
Back at Osbourn Park, I was on a roll thinking I could speak to these engaged young people and inspire them just as I had at Toastmasters. It just hadn’t occurred to me that, to them, I am old.
I captured the students with my opening about wanting to walk through an airport security checkpoint with my lifted shoe intact, only to have the TSA worker unholster his weapon and proclaim that I have an RPG under my foot. I lost them thereafter with my cancer discussion. They’re only sixteen, and if I hadn’t developed cancer at that age then I wouldn’t relate, either.
I shared what it’s like to have your life change instantly, and to feel extremely unique, and how to gain perspective. How my physical handicap prevents participation in certain activities, but it also makes me feel fortunate that I can still walk, unlike some others who cannot.
The nursing class—one of the three in attendance—was captured, but some students were dozing off. The minimal feedback at the end was another sign that I didn’t succeed.
But, my visit was not a failure. I learned an important lesson: target the discussion to my particular audience. And by that I mean throw in random references to Justin Bieber.
Also, you don’t have to influence everyone: sometimes touching one individual makes it worthwhile. There was a young man who watched me intently, and raised his hand to ask a couple relevant questions. When my time was up, he escorted me back to my car. While walking, he shared personal issues he’d been struggling with, things he needed to talk about but were difficult to disclose. He looked to me for guidance because of what I shared with him: that I survived cancer twice, but you can also be a survivor without ever having had cancer, and it is important to find your own survival methods no matter what other people think.
I really wished I knew how to help him. I wanted to give him answers on what to do, how to cope. But, I couldn’t totally relate, and had little to offer besides some encouragement. He is a survivor, as well—not of cancer but of life.
Halfway to my car we were stopped by an old security guard. My escort did not have a pass, and I couldn’t find my visitor’s sticker, so the security guard took us to the main office. The security guard threatened to give the kid a referral. “Really?” he asked as worry crept over his face.
When I was in high school I was probably even more timid than this kid, but this old fuckface was enraging me. “It’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just head to my car and he’ll go back to class. His teacher told him to go with me.”
The power-hungry guard did not budge. At the office I described the incident and made absolutely certain the student wasn’t going to get in trouble.
Rattled by the guard, the kid never finished sharing his story with me. Before he rushed away down the hall, I gave him my card and said to contact me whenever he wants.
Later that day I thanked his teacher via email for having me visit her classes, and told her how fond I was of the kid. She told me he "is extraordinary—most people can’t fathom his depth."
I hope to hear from him. More importantly, I really hope he can find his own way.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
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