When I was in grade nine, my English teacher Mr. Nauffts assigned an oral presentation. I can’t remember the topic, and I can’t recall any formal oral presentations before this time. I do however remember reading sections of a story while seated in my desk, and the joy of answering questions and even going up to the board to show off my math skills.
Formal oral presentations were a new thing though. If we did have them, I know I would have bowed out (aka stayed home ‘sick’). This particular one in grade nine however was the first one I remember vividly because of what transpired on the day I was to give the talk.
When my name was called, I walked over to Mr. Nauffts and gave him the written assignment. He said that I now had to present it. I told him I wouldn’t. I didn’t say in a snarky way; I simply stated I did not do oral presentations. What I didn’t tell him was that I hated them, that they made me feel too paranoid and self-conscious. I’d rather jab a pencil in my hand then stand up in front of my classmates and talk on a subject.
He told me that if I didn’t present the assignment that I would lose five points right off my term mark. In a calm voice I told him, “That’s okay; I can afford it,” and I took my seat.
I’m sure the look on his face as I walked away was one of shock, but as he thought about it, he had to agree: I could afford it.
My marks in junior high were above average. I recall I got 100 for the year for both Science and Social Studies in grade eight. I listened in class (the secret to my success), and took great notes and actually read them. Losing five points in English meant I got either low nineties or high eighties. On average, my marks in high school were similar. I seldom made below 75 even though I took scientific math, physics, biology and astronomy.
I faced a similar challenge with a teacher with regard to oral presentations in grade eleven. I had completed the assignment and passed it in, but when it came time to present it, I refused. Again the teacher threatened to take marks directly off the term mark. I shrugged and stayed in my seat.
The subject was geography. It was my favourite subject after biology and astronomy, and the assignment topic was genealogy. I had to create a family tree with three or four generations. This student who loved geography and history, and who would become experienced in genealogy (my genealogy column recently celebrated its ninth anniversary), failed the term because if you didn’t do the oral assignment, you automatically received a 45.
Oh well, the other two terms brought my mark up, so I easily passed the course.
Fast forward several decades, and I find my son in the same boat as I was: terrified to do oral presentations in school. Every month it seems he has to face another assignment that he often falls ‘sick’ to. He has struggled through a few, and I sympathise with him.
Recently I told him: “If I were in high school today, I would be a high school drop out.”
Regardless of what the teachers and experts say, not everyone is cut out to do oral presentations, and it’s a damn shame the system forces timid students to decide whether they want to be productive learners sitting quietly in the classroom absorbing information or…high school drop-outs because of anxiety attacks, missed days and assignments not handed in.
The odd thing about this is that I dreaded doing oral presentations only in school. As we know, high school students can judge classmates harshly, and being in front of people when you weren’t in the ‘popular circle’ was like being judged by the fashion police who would talk about all your flaws for months. That’s the pressure that many students find themselves under. The public school system is the wrong place to teach public speaking.
Since graduating high school, I assimilated into society quite well. I’ve worked in various positions in the public and had no issues speaking with customers. I’ve facilitated meetings and even taught several night courses, and while the first few minutes were nerve-wracking, I never once thought jumping from a bridge was a better fate.
So guess what: the inability to do oral assignments in school has no bearing on whether or not a person can present their ideas in a public forum.
Frankly, I believe oral presentations in school should either be scrapped or optional. Maybe it will keep a few brilliant students from becoming high school drop-outs.