Headmaster’s Thoughts – February 2010

One of the requirements of doing this job of heading a school is that you have to give talks to groups—usually parents but, obviously, also students.  Since before I started the school I was a barrister at the Old Bailey in London, I realize that I have spent a lot of my life “speechifying.” Like most activities, the more you do it, the less frightening it becomes.  Practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes it less nerve-wracking.

The first time I ever really had to make a speech in front of total strangers was when I was about 15. My school had a “public speaking” club, and we met and discussed the meaning of meaning in the rather formal and pompous way that English schoolboys debated at the time. Our faculty advisor somehow figured out that debating about a predetermined topic in front of one’s peers was not public speaking at all, and so he decided to test us in a very different format. He took us (there may have been a dozen boys in the club) to Speakers’’ Corner in Hyde Park on a Saturday morning.

I should explain, if you haven’t ever heard of it, what Speakers’ Corner is. It isn’t a corner at all but a large asphalt area just inside London’s Hyde Park near the Marble Arch. It was the site of the original “Tyburn Tree” where public executions were held. Before each of the condemned was hanged, he or she was allowed to make a public speech to the crowd. Since the prisoners were going to give the public the entertainment of the day, it would be bad form for the crowd not to listen to these last words, and in fact, these speeches were part of the “fun.” For obvious reasons, most of the condemned were very angry, and they expressed their fury in their last remarks. They would obscenely insult the crowd, defame the Monarch, blaspheme and curse, and would occasionally (probably rarely) be witty and clever. They had nothing to lose and they could not get more punishment regardless of what they said. They, therefore, had total freedom of speech.

Thankfully, there is no death penalty in Britain anymore. Public executions were ended in 1858 and Tyburn was last used in 1783. But the place of free speech stayed a place of free speech. Hence, it came to be known as Speakers’ Corner. On the weekends, policemen will calmly listen at the back of the crowd as men and women carry platforms and ladders, climb upon them, and declaim their beliefs and their frustrations over anything and everything to a curious and fickle public. If they are boring, people just drift off to listen to someone else.

So thinking we, too, were coming to listen to others, we innocents in the Public Speaking Club arrived. I can remember it as though it were yesterday. I think most of us began to realize that listening would not be all we would be doing when our teacher unwrapped a milk crate from a cloth. It was obviously going to be a podium. Not a very good podium, not as nice as the others, not professional in any way, but a podium nonetheless. “Okay, boys!” he said cheerfully. “Let’s see if you can keep the crowd’s attention for three minutes. Who wants to go first?”

No one wanted to go first, or second, or third. I actually can’t remember who did go first because I was too busy having an anxiety attack. But I do remember that a few boys did stand up on the crate and bravely launched into some diatribe that people listened to. I was hyperventilating. Eventually, I got pushed up and looked out at a small crowd, maybe thirty people, who looked expectantly back at me. And I suddenly felt like the prisoner who was about to be hanged. I had absolutely nothing to lose. What were they going to do? To walk away would be the worst!

Somewhere in the back of my mind I must have remembered, from reading Gulliver’s Travels, how the Lilliputians had gone to war over eggs because I began to talk nonsense about eggs.  It was grade A nonsense.  I declared that the government was conspiring to make eggs square because they could be packed more easily into boxes, that this was a major scientific national effort which Her Majesty had agreed to (I don’t know why I brought the Queen into this), and that soon our traditional English oval eggs would be history and would be replaced by neat squares with neat square yolks inside.  I then launched into a conspiracy theory: these square eggs would cause havoc in those homes where they boiled their eggs for breakfast and knocked the top off with a knife. (This is how a boiled egg is eaten in England. You put the egg in its little stand with the larger part of the oval on the bottom and knock the top off.) The havoc would be that no one would know which end to knock off. Which was the top and which was the bottom? (I was getting warmed up on my subject.) I declared that the entire English labor force would be late for work because they would be unable to make a quick decision as to how to knock off the top of their eggs. They would spend so much time on that decision that they would lose wages because of their lateness. The rest of the speech was good Marxist rhetoric. The plutocrats would win, the poor would suffer, etc., etc. Eggs will be the tool for the capitalists. I culminated with a rousing chorus of “Workers of the world unite; we have nothing to lose…”

Around that time, my three minutes were up. No one really laughed, no one jeered, no one applauded. The next boy took his place. That was it. Like the condemned prisoner, I was replaced by the next victim to make his speech.

One tends to glorify and magnify many things as one looks back at one’s youth, and I suspect I may have because, although I thought it was quite a good speech, I have no recollection of any of my friends or the teacher commenting positively or negatively about it. We all spoke, the faculty advisor told us that we all did well, and we went home. That was it.  But I do remember feeling relieved that I had overcome my panic mode and that it hadn’t gone badly.

There is no lesson in all of this except what I stated at the beginning—namely, the more you speak in public, the less big a deal it is. Perhaps there is the subtle message that one can actually talk nonsense and no one really cares. Be warned that if I talk about eggs, I am either having flashbacks to my youth or just talking nonsense. In a sense, it is all rather like writing these “headmaster’s thoughts” each month.  You only have to get up on the milk crate and launch forth.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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