Thursday, March 19, 2015

My talk to 8th graders a near debacle (at first)

Something happened to me yesterday that hadn’t happened in 38 years: I was sent to the middle school principal’s office.

Just the recollection of the last visit made my butt start to sting.

I believe I was maybe the last 8th grader to get paddled in the Mt. Lebanon School District. It happened to me about five times and I’ve heard it hasn’t happened since.

Mt. Lebanon today is much more enlightened. They no longer paddle disruptive 8th graders. Today they are more famous for luring, penning and slaughtering local deer who’ve had had the temerity to nibble on posh Lebo shrubbery.


I can’t remember what I did for the beefy, humorless principal to paddle me, but I’m sure it was something funny.

I was really funny in 8th grade. It got me into lots of trouble

My fear yesterday was I hadn’t been funny enough.

My much-ballyhooed talk to 200 area 8th graders looked like it was going to be a total debacle. I’d front-loaded all my best jokes into the opening. I figured if I could get them laughing right away I’d have them with me the whole time.

Nothing worked. I was bombing. They hated me.

I’ve never before been the focus of such an intense concentration of visceral hate — and I’m the guy who once stood up in a banquet hall full of Pennsylvania’s top journalists and said, “Hi! I’m Chris Rodell and I write stories for National Enquirer!”

And, remember, this was the speech I’d planned to break free from using notes and a podium. On stage it was just me and a mic. If they were going to start hurling their smart phones at my noggin there was no where to hide.

It was going so bad I remember at one point thinking, man, I may one day again accept another invitation to talk to 8th graders but I’ll never again try and do it sober.

And the whole thing was being filmed. I’d paid my buddy, a professional videographer, a stipend to tape it.

I’m eager to see the tape to pinpoint when it began to turn. I think it was after I’d exhausted all my sappy platitudes about being nice and started to tell them how so many otherwise successful adults admit to struggling with many of the same concerns and insecurities as do they, and that there are attitudinal ways we can overcome all that to enjoy rich, happy lives regardless of our earnings.

It was either that or they began to feel pity for me when I began sarcastically moaning how nice it must be for them to get a weekly allowance when I did not.

I wonder if I subconsciously sabotage myself so when I finally start to make sense the comeback seems all the more spectacular.

That’s what happened. They eventually began cheering and by the end rushed forward to meet me. At first they wanted to kill me and then they wound up praising me for the warmth of my message.

So it was sort of like parts of the Easter story only in reverse.

Then came word the principal wanted to see me and all the old ghosts began to rise. Had I screwed up? Was I in trouble?

“No! You were great!” she said.

So was she. She was pretty, vivacious and said the nicest things about me. She looked nothing like the mean old bastards who paddled me for being funny. In fact, she said I was funny and didn’t reflexively reach for a ruler.

Then it got better.

“The school would like to buy a copy of your book for each of our 8th graders.”

An already very nice payday had just like that quadrupled.

I sat there silently for so long she must have thought I’d been considering a bone-headed counter offer.

“Is something wrong?”

“No, not at all,” I said. “I was just sitting here thinking how this is the best time I’ve ever had in the principal’s office.”

Funny how things change.

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