Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gold Fever

Elsie walked down the hall of her high school toward her 6th period class--Public Speaking. She had to rush, her sandals clicking and clacking on the cement as she tried to beat the ring of the bell and a tardy slip. Her “quick” stop to the restroom to vomit, turned into a much longer trip of vomiting and crying.
She loathed even the thought of public speaking, and now she was having to take a class in it as part of the requirements of Freshmen. And her first speech was due today--right now.
As Elsie walked through the door, the bell rang and she grabbed the nearest desk to where she was standing. The room was filled to capacity, that of 35 students, every desk being taken and every face looking excited, or nervous.
The teacher, Mr. Blackburn, had been teaching forever by the look of sheer boredom on his face along with the red pressure marks of his glasses on the bridge of his nose. Probably a World War Two vet. Probably got through college on the GI bill that was so popular after the war. Now, he was just happy to be teaching for minimum pay, and raising his post-war baby-boomer family.
“Today as you all know,” he said with an air of propriety, “is speech day. I hope you all have come up with a startling new issue to argue before the class, for you have to speak for two minutes each.”
Mr. Blackburn took his seat with his clipboard and red pen, and began calling out victims. He had mixed the names up to keep the class at the ready. Elsie could feel her stomach clench each time a speaker finished and sat down.
Sean Carter, captain of the freshman football team and son of Sean Carter Sr., heir to the Carter Emporium, the biggest high-end department store in Union Square, was up and speaking on the unfairness of curfew the night before a big game. When he finished his two minutes, Mr. Blackburn clapped unenthusiastically.
“Leave it to Mr. Carter to argue something as inane as curfew for football players. Well Mr. Carter, you have underachieved again. Next,” Mr. Blackburn said looking over his glasses to his student list, “we will hear from Elsie.”
Elsie shuffled to the front of the class and stood behind the podium. Setting her notes up, she cleared her throat, looked out at the room full of people and froze. “I,” she hesitated and then coughed, “I think that compulsory public speaking class for girls is wrong.”
Mr. Blackburn looked up from his ledger at Elsie and raised an eyebrow.
“That is,” Elsie went on, wringing her hands and shifting her weight from one foot to the other, “it should be an elective like home economics or wood shop because most girls like me will never need to make a public speech. I mean, I plan on getting married and raising a family. What do I need public speaking for? It’s a man’s job to make speeches, like President Kennedy or Martin Luther King.”
Elsie shuffled her papers once again, cleared her throat, and looked at Mr. Blackburn who’s face was a violent red. “That’s all I have to say,” she said meekly and hurried back to her desk in the back of the room.
Mr. Blackburn had nothing to say in front of the class about Elsie’s speech, but he kept her after class for a teacher-student discussion.
“I just wanted to say that public speaking is wrong for me, Mr. Blackburn,” Elsie said hoping he wasn’t going to give her detention and get her into trouble with her mom and dad, “it’s wrong to make someone do something that’s going to make them wish they were dead.”
She knew she had done it now. Gave a World War Two vet an opportunity to pontificate about having to do something they don’t want to. And she was right. The talk went on for several minutes, Mr. Blackburn ending the sermon with the old, ‘you gotta reach down for some guts or you will get no where in this world’ line that he was known for.
Trouble was, Elsie didn’t know if she had any guts to reach down for. Or if she did, what she would do with them.

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