After a recent presentation, a member of the audience asked me how my career as a State of Arkansas employee had led me to be a storyteller. I laughed at that thought, because as I explained, the storytelling definitely came before the “day job”. We don’t often take a look back at what shaped who we are. Why do some things seem to come easier to us than they do to others?
Some of my lack of hesitation in getting up to speak may be genetic. Mom was president of her high school class, and a chief rabble rouser for her professional women’s sorority. Dad led defensive driving courses as part of his career as a State Trooper. He was the one who advised me that when speaking before a crowd, you should imagine that they are all sitting there in underclothes, making you the most “put together” and prepared person in the room. I actually never practiced that, for fear of breaking into laughter.
Looking back, it seems that I had plenty of practice on the “stage”. Sunday school and Bible School programs started very early. In elementary school, our teachers constantly gave us opportunities to sing, or even to memorize lines. I believe my first speaking part was as a forlorn, rejected Christmas tree.
In Junior High, our choir director had bigger ambitions, with a presentation of “Sadie Shaw from Arkansas”, and then a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My role as Katisha in the Mikado required a three hour trip to the beauty salon for a huge, jet-black beehive hairdo, complete with knitting needles spiked through it. I remember being required to wear this look to school on the day of the opening performance. The eight-grader playing Yum Yum endured a similar trial, so we sought each other for sympathetic hugs in the hallway as our friends passed by, barely concealing their snickers.
As a young teen, I joined Sing Out, a division of the Up with People franchise, which involved providing entertainment for civic groups and youth gatherings. We excelled in upbeat music with some “groovy” choreography that would have made the Brady Bunch envious.
High School brought classes in Public Speaking and Drama, and my sister and I participated in summer theater. One production of “The Bells are Ringing” cast us as part of a chorus line for “The Midas Touch”. High kicks and poo-poo-pe-doos were performed in sparkling gold tights and spray painted tennis shoes. The next year, the show was Finian’s Rainbow, which included a number called “The Begat”. On Broadway and in the movie, this one was performed by minstrels in top hats and tails. Our version featured the same Midas Touch girls, dressed in black instead of gold. During that next school year, one of my friends and I reprised the routine for drama tournaments, and won awards for our fancy footwork .
Understandably, by the time I was grown and married, I was no longer timid about speaking, singing or dancing in front of others. What could possibly be more embarrassing than what I had already experienced? This naturally led to being a Cub Scout leader, Roundtable Commissioner, and Mother Nature at Cub Scout Day Camp.
The younger the audience, of course, the easier it was to perform. Young campers loved the tales that were told while walking down a wooded path. The older boys came up with ways to participate. One of their favorite routines involved me telling the Cubs that they should be very quiet, because they might hear a baby deer calling to its mother. Then, the hidden Boy Scout would shout “Hey Mom!” Shy and timid were not words used to describe those young men.
As Roundtable chair, I dealt with adults. It was a little harder to convince them to put their inhibitions aside for a silly song, but leading by example, it could be accomplished. At a rather serious banquet on the last night I was serving as commissioner, I couldn’t resist an audience participation song. Entitled “Man With a Head Like a Ping Pong Ball” (to the tune of the William Tell Overture) this one was particularly appropriate when performed by gentlemen with very little hair. Keeping my composure while leading that one from the front of the room was not easy.
This relative ease helped when my role at work became that of trainer. I was able to put my students at ease while discussing topics that were very difficult for them to grasp. It’s always easier to learn if the teacher seems to be comfortable with the topic.
So, now I enjoy each opportunity I get to tell a story, whether in writing, or in person. I have been doing this longer than I have been a column writer, or a state employee. I do it because I love it, because it is a big part of who I am. Thanks for being such a great audience.