Potential High School Drop-out

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.

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8 thoughts on “Potential High School Drop-out

  1. I’m with you Diane. I was petrified to stand up and speak alone in class. I also did everything to avoid it. Yes, we grow and become more self-assured. I became a polar opposite to my former self, an extrovert, yet the thought of speaking in a crowded room still sets my stomach in a tailspin.

  2. I’ve become comfortable doing oral presentations and speeches because of my middle and high school career and my time in 4-H — now in university I know I can reasonably pass my oral exams and give announcements in front of a lecture hall of 200. I do think they should be optional for students who have anxiety and are unable to articulate their thoughts out loud, but high and school (and 4-H) prepared me for postsecondary situations where public speaking and presenting are required. Great post — a lot of people in my university year were discussing this before our oral exams. 🙂

  3. I agree that oral presentations in school can be very hard on young people, especially since they are made in front of peers. I am outgoing and enjoy public speaking and book readings, but in high school it was terrifying. I´m glad I forced myself to do it though as it helped me latter on. Bravo to you for sticking to your guns!

  4. As the class valedictorian in Grade 8 (after 8 we went to high school) and having no problem doing it, I can’t even begin to understand you anxiety. This is, I think, the problem. Most people who go into teaching probably have no trouble getting up in front of a group of people and speaking. As a result, they don’t understand what you and others like you are experiencing. As we said in my day: they can’t relate to your problem. You are right, this is not a fair assessment.
    Art

    • Thanks, Art. High school already holds a lot of drama, and I’ve learned that everything is the end of the world when you’re hormones are taking you on a roller coaster. Kids can be very cruel and judgmental. Adding public speaking to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

      I agree that it’s difficult to understand someone else’s shortcomings. I don’t understand why some people can’t write a five-hundred-word essay in a few hours, row a boat out to the ocean alone and inject vitamins into the muscle of a goat, so I can imagine those who are comfortable talking in front of crowd will not understand my problem.

  5. I am similarly afflicted and people find it odd since I appear very social. But that is because I’m good one-on-one, not in front of people.
    Diane, I wonder, how as an author do you manage author readings? They are expected, here in Canada. Maybe not so much in the US. Or did you overcome your fear in some way?

    • Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment, Judy. Well, with regard to author readings, I’ve never done one. I probably never will. I’ve also turned down interviews on the radio and one request to appear on a local television show. I have done a few newspaper interviews, but I’m always on guard with what I say. Has this hurt my career? It certainly hasn’t helped it.

      I’m okay with being a hermit though. When I really want to say something in public, I do, but I don’t go out of my way to create situations in which I have to talk solo in front of an audience. I also have no problems selling my books at craft shows and chatting with customers. I can do this all day without a bit of fear. Like you, it’s one on one, so it’s easy.

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