Cicero Looked Down and Wept

January 29, 1994|By MIKE BOWLER

Jerry Seinfeld notes in his delightful best-seller, "SeinLanguage," that the No. 1 fear of Americans (according to surveys) is public speaking.

No. 2 is death. ''Does that seem right?'' he asks. ''That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.''

I was thinking along similar lines last spring when I was asked by the Loch Raven Optimist Club to judge an oratory contest. The competition took place in a Parkville church social hall, and I watched as eight well-dressed young teen-agers came before us in turn, paused for a dramatic second (during which I silently prayed they would not run from the hall in panic) and then launched a memorized speech on the year's national Optimist topic, ''You Can Make a Difference.''

How remarkable! I thought. I've judged numerous writing contests in which contestants are physically removed from judges. I judge the Veterans of Foreign Wars' national Voice of Democracy competition, in which contestants declaim on audio tape and are identified by number to prevent favoritism.

But this! These kids have to be as brave as Olympic skaters. What would compel a 13-year-old to come before an audience of strangers (except for her own family), including three unsmiling judges, and go through the torture of delivering a memorized speech, complete with appropriate body language and voice inflections?

Like why weren't these kids down at the mall like rapping about Snoop Doggy Dogg and like engaging in mating rituals? Like that's what I was doing at that age.

I thought about it all summer and all fall. Finally, I called our winner (by unanimous vote), Chrissy Miola, then a 13-year-old eighth grader at Cardinal Shehan School. Chrissy, who had gone on to win the Optimists' Maryland and Southern Delaware title with a speech based on the diary of Anne Frank, said, ''It's scary and hard work, but it's a positive experience. The thing is you have to get up there and say the speech. Even if you feel sick, if you have butterflies in your stomach, you have to get up there. . . . But speaking is the tool of life, and more and more people don't know how to use it.''

Which is another way of saying that the art of public speaking is dying. Speaking never did hold a place with the three R's (it would have been ''reaking''), though perhaps it should have. It's closely related to writing (Chrissy rewrote her winning speech several times), and the same excuse is made as both deteriorate: So long as the point gets across, who cares about convention, form or style? Even the word ''oratory'' gets a bum rap. The media refer critically to President Clinton's ''political oratory,'' Louis Farrakhan's ''anti-Semitic oratory.''

Speech is no longer in the curriculum of many schools. A Baltimore County teacher tells me that ''most schools have been forced [by other demands on curriculum] not to offer speech. I have to steal from something to work it in. For instance, if I'm to teach five Shakespeare sonnets, I'll teach four and use the

stolen time for a little speaking. . . . I'd say the majority of students leave school without having had speech, even if it's offered. It's too bad, because speech is part of the rehearsal of learning.''

Too, some teachers don't want to encourage public speaking. They want quiet classrooms. If any speaking is to be done, they want to do it. Yet John Miller, a retired Baltimore County firefighter who volunteers to help young people learn oratorical skills, says teen-agers can become expert speech-makers in 10 weeks. ''We've tried to promote it in the public schools,'' he says, ''but there's not much interest.''

There are guardians of public speech. Bryn Mawr School, where Chrissy Miola is now a freshman, still requires a 20-minute speech of each of its seniors. The Optimists have their contest. There are people like Mr. Miller. Some schools have debate teams and drama programs, both closely related to speech. Many Catholic schools still emphasize public speaking. And the NAACP's ACT-SO (Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics), an effort to reward black achievement on the blackboard instead of the backboard, has an oratory category for those young people who would become as eloquent as Martin Luther King Jr. and other great orators.

But the battle, I fear, is a losing one. Jerry Seinfeld is right. If people prefer dying over public speaking, they are also better at it.

Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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