Effective Speaking

by Mary McDermott

It was by accident that I became an Effective Speaking teacher. I applied at the local community college to teach English a couple weeks before the semester was scheduled to begin.

“I don’t have any English classes,” said Jim Morgan, the Chairman of the English/Communications Department, “but I do have one Effective Speaking class available.”

“I’ve never taught Effective Speaking,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Never even took it,” I continued.

“Doesn’t matter, ” he said. “Effective Speaking is the easiest class in the college to teach. Anyone can teach it.” He leaned forward toward me.

It’s amazing what department chairs will say when they’re hard pressed for a teacher.

“What days does it meet?” I asked.

“Monday and Wednesday at 11:00. At the satellite campus. St. James High School. In Spokane.”

“How long does it take to get there?

“Where do you live?”


“45 minutes, max.”

“And it pays $1800.00 like the English classes?”


“Is that all you have?”

“That’s it at the moment.”

“How many speeches do they have to do?”

“I think about four or five.”

“Is there a text book?”


“What’s the class size limit?

“Sixteen students.”

I could handle sixteen students at a satellite campus.

“Ok. I’ll do it.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d been thrown into teaching a course with absolutely no experience in the field. The first time had been when I’d been tossed into a business writing class. One of the things I had to teach was Power Point. And brochure writing. And report writing. None of which I had any experience in. In a nutshell, I had to fake it. And they knew it. Upon looking at the sample brochure I’d created, one of the female students said, “I’ve never seen a brochure like this before.” I hated her.

I knew I could do this.

Actually, the satellite campuses drew the highly marginalized kids. Upon entering my class room the first day, I learned that five of my only ten students (not 16 after all) were ex-felons. One had abused her husband. She’d beaten him up. She had the odd habit of wearing dainty white gloves. I think they were emblematic of her gang. Another had sold large quantities of marijuana. Still another has assaulted his girlfriend and the man she was sleeping with. Two of the felons wouldn’t tell me what they’d done.

The woman who’d abused her husband had lost her two kids to social services.

One of the women who wasn’t a felon had seven kids. She was only about 25.

I had one student who was homeless. She was sleeping at the YMCA.

It is about this student that I’ll speak.

I’ll call her Emily.

Emily had the best excuse for not doing a speech that I’ve ever heard.

Here’s how it went.

It was Emily’s turn to do the demonstrative speech. This was the speech in which the student had to demonstrate something while he spoke. One girl had shown how to apply a tattoo with a tattoo gun. Another had displayed how to make pepperoni roll. This had been absolutely delicious. The kid had given me the leftovers to take home to my husband, who, upon eating them, had announced, “I hope you gave him an “A.”

A young man had described how to make a rose out of toilet paper. He’d made these in prison to obtain “money.” The prisoners bartered cigarettes and ramon noodles for his dozens of toilet paper roses to give to their girlfriends who visited them on the weekends. If they gave him extra cigs, he’d dip the paper roses in red Koolaid powder.

Emily was going to make a fruit salad. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving.

“Oh, that’s a good idea,” I’d said. “You can show us how to cut up all the fruit like strawberries and apples.”

“I’m going to use canned fruit,” she said.

“Canned fruit?” I said surprised.

“With the juice.”

After the holiday, Emily appeared in the class sort of subdued. She didn’t seem nervous like the other speakers of the day did. Finally, it was her turn to demonstrate. I called her up to the podium. I noticed that she didn’t have any supplies with her. The girl who’d gone before her had made some tasty brownies out of a Betty Crocker mix. She lugged up mixing bowls, spoons, the mix and the finished brownies still warm in their 9 X 13 glass pan.

Emily stood there, situating her hands on the sides of the wooden lectern. Then she began to speak.

“I’m sorry Mrs. McDermott…”

She paused.

“But we ate the fruit at Thanksgiving. We didn’t have anything else to eat. I can’t do my speech.”

I was stunned. I didn’t react right away. I knew she wanted pity. She wanted me to let her off. But I wasn’t going to do so. And I made a mental note that she’d worn a nice dress for the occasion.

“You still have to give the speech,” I said.

“But how? I ate the fruit. We ate the fruit. At the YMCA. My family came over, and we ate the fruit. For Thanksgiving.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’ve still got to do a demonstrative speech. No one is getting out of here unless he does the demonstrative speech.”

“I don’t have any money.”

There it was. She had nothing to buy the supplies to demonstrate anything. Now this was pathetic.

Or was it?

Then, I got an idea. A wonderful, fanciful, marvelous idea. What does every woman, no matter how poor, how destitute, have? There it was. I knew it!

“Do you have a bag of makeup?” I asked Emily.

“Of course,” she said.

“You’ll demonstrate putting on your makeup,” I said triumphantly.

“My makeup?” she asked.


“Isn’t that a little personal?”

“It is, but you can do it without spending a dime.”

To make a long story short, Emily, who was not a teenager, who was in fact about 49, applied her base; then, her blush; then, her eye shadow, and finally her lipstick, and she did it perfectly.

Emily got an A.

I’ve never seen a happier student.

Nor have I heard a better excuse for not doing an assignment.

They ate the fruit. It was Thanksgiving.

Now, I’ve heard everything.

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