The Six Minute Speech and The Science Project

Distractions equal interruptions.  The weight of anything that interrupts you is measured by the time you allow it.  The impact of it is not dependent on you even noticing that it has occurred at all.

Now and then, I’ll get intensely focused for a relatively short period of time–sometimes mere seconds; sometimes minutes, sometimes hours (all being the same to me), on something I might be curious about.  If I’m with a group of other people when this happens, I’ve gotten used to the idea that the group in general will not show the least bit of interest in whatever has caught my attention.  It will have been shrugged off by the rest of them as some unworthy distraction, and that I would want to spend any time at all looking at it, is seen as a delay and a nuisance at best, and at worst, exemplary of one of my many debilitating character flaws.

My life cannot be defined honestly to have been short-changed due to any lack of time, as I’ve had the same clock everyone else has; my days are defined by twenty-four hours just as are yours.  Though knowledgeable that methods exist, I’ve never in the slightest way that others would notice, mastered any part of the process people call “time management”.  My approach would be similar to trying to manage a hornet’s nest by throwing rocks at it.

I am aware of how others seem to divide the hours of a day into precise and recognizable subsets.  Some folks have the whole day divided into efficient fifteen minute units with specific and exact elements called “action steps”.  At no time do they go sit on the porch to smoke their pipe and stare off into the horizon.  It would be difficult for them, and since I’m one of the few blessed with a talent for such acrobatics, I try not to make fun of them over their perplexities about being clumsy in that department.  After all, my mother raised me to be a gentleman with some manners about the feelings of other people.

At a young age, in spite of all the distractions you can imagine would be going on, I learned the alphabet.  Though I was not the first to do it, nor was I singularly the only one successful with that endeavor, not only did I learn to say it out loud, but could sing it, and stay on key to the very end of the thing, repeating for as long and as often as the applause would allow.  I also picked up and devoured a few things being served on the multiplication table.

But I never did learn everything, particularly avoiding things expected of me, and even required of me.  A few things that were easy for me seemed harder for others.  And some things others picked up effortlessly seemed out of my reach altogether.  That bothered me.  I used to scratch my head and wonder why some things were so easy for me to memorize while others around me struggled with it, and how other things that should be easy to learn would drift away in a fog.  More than once I was perplexed when certain I understood exactly what a teacher was talking about, but couldn’t for the life of me, prove it on a test.

The Six Minute Speech:

Once as a college freshman, I was assigned to prepare, and give a six minute speech in class.  When it was my turn, I talked easily non-stop–for eighteen minutes.  What some might not understand would be how I seemed completely unaware of the overrun. I’m sure other students were curious as how I could not notice the professor in the back of the room who was waving his arms, jumping up and down, pointing at his watch, and at one point almost stood on his head.  I just thought he was demonstrating some highly animated enthusiasm for my oratory.

Other than that notion, which would soon prove to be unfounded, none of his obvious efforts to get my attention to the time seemed to affect me at all.  He held me back at the end of the class to show me his grade book.  I was reminded that I was to be graded that day on a six minute speech.  He said I gave three separate six minute speeches crammed together nonstop, all of which were terrible.  And that since I delivered three speeches instead of just one, thus taking up irreplaceable classroom time, I should in all fairness have three grades accordingly.

Then as he looked down and pointed at the book, I could see by my name very clearly, the images of three capital F’s glaring back at me.  An old ghost came into my head once more.  That spirit always shows up at such moments to numb me, because it knows I’m about to feel overwhelmed a bit, and in need of numbing.  This numbness, when it overtakes me, never seems to extract any recognizable appreciation from anyone else who might be trying to communicate with me at the time.

The professor kept talking.  He said I could do better than that, and would do better if I had “any hope of passing” his class.  He said other things, too, but they blended in with the chronicles in my mind already playing.  His words would mingle with other words already recorded on that same loop that began back as far as I can remember.  Bits and pieces of the voices of every teacher or instructor I’ve ever had for more than a single day was on it, and some more frantic than others.

Over the years, variations on the same tune were repeated, and always played back with reverb and echo effects with each new track.  It played in my head in stereo, or even quadraphonics, I don’t know.  But when it plays, it’s very loud, and almost everything else real and present becomes obscured and fuzzy.  Interestingly enough, the same thing that causes it in the first place is also the very thing that gives me temporary relief from it.

Once in a while, which for me is almost constantly, I can become happily distracted by some passing butterfly, or a group of ants devouring a grasshopper.  But even so, the haunting loop in my head won’t go away, not entirely.  Do you ever dream?  Do you ever hear a song in your dreams?  Imagine it playing over and over and over, with lyrics such as:

“Still not finished…haven’t even started…where’s your list…you know better than that…not living up to your potential…certainly capable of…I know you hear me…why you aren’t listening…same old pattern…inexcusable…I thought we agreed…we expected…I expected…how can you ever expect…what in the world was…who do you now expect…when are you ever…can do…must do…now, now, now…how could you not…you were supposed…you were supposed…you were supposed…”  

I do start things; lots of them.  Some are quite extraordinarily formidable, and flattering to my abilities and intellect.  Some, but by no means all, have the highest of noble intentions.  But whether or not I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, I’m seldom organized enough to come back to them at any later time to finish what I’d started.  Decades roll by, and none of the unfinished projects go away, nor do they come to the forefront to be executed.  I’ve begged many of them to be hanged, or step in front of a firing squad.

The peripheral arena from almost every point of view I take, is filled with them, and all of them are rambunctious and often noisy.  It’s not just that I get distracted away from projects, I get distracted BY those same projects, as they stand there glaring at me just inches, which might as well be miles, out of my reach.

The escape is to block them all momentarily by intensely taking interest in a new thing.  And even as I do, I’m aware that whatever it was that was just a few moments earlier was so important to me will slip by, and possibly disappear altogether for a bit, only to crop up at some other inconvenient moment to embarrass me.

The Science Project:

Nearing the end of the sixth grade, I had started on a science project.  By starting, that means I’d thought about it, though perhaps little else.  The teacher’s name was Mrs. Scott.  And in fairness to her, she had given us plenty of time, and had reminded us often, to do it.  The due date came.  By the ripe old age of eleven, I was well practiced in the art of renegotiating deadlines.  It would become the cornerstone of a most interesting curiosity I was constructing called the rest of my life.  The last day of school came, and I still had no project to turn in.

I went to Mrs. Scott, who stared at me for a moment without smiling.  During that moment, the recording in my head began to play, but the volume turned down quickly as she finally spoke, and smiled at me.  Though I was not aware of it at the time, that precious moment was some very significant reinforcement to the concept forming inside my very soul about the power of a smile.  Smiles became a most valuable commodity, and a currency I could use often to get almost everything I really wanted.  Additionally, it could serve as bail money, too, and got me out of a few things I didn’t want.

She said she wouldn’t hold me back, and that I’d be allowed to go on to the next grade level.  But that I still owed her the project.  I was to complete it over the summer and bring it by her house.  I went there almost every Saturday that summer, and mowed her lawn.  Each time, she asked about the project, and each time, I told her I was not finished with it yet.  That was the truth.  In fact I’d still not even started it other than think about it.

She said mowing the lawn didn’t get me out of anything, and to allow for that would be a dishonesty on both our parts.  She wouldn’t be bribed in that way, and refused to be guilty of tempting me to sell my soul by allowing me to offer it as a bribe.  So, she paid me two dollars for the yard work, and by doing so, launched the career of an enterprising entrepreneur.  I mowed a lot of lawns that summer, and never missed an appointment with Mrs. Scott.  It was also a time when my father found it a good idea to teach me about the care and feeding of a lawnmower.  But in the back of his mind, he knew quite well that without his own due diligence, the machine would likely starve to death, or be crippled.

I continued in that employment throughout junior high school even after taking on a paper route.  I mowed many lawns, and had many customers come and go for various reasons.  But Mrs. Scott stayed with my service, And I took care of her yard each summer for the next four years.

Each time right before handing me two dollars, we discussed the science project, and that I was still in debt until it was completed.  She also reminded me often, that with all the extra time I’d been allowed, the project would be expected to be quite wonderful, possibly even getting nominated for The Nobel Prize, or something.  And it better be an eye popper if I were to expect a passing grade at this late date.

Of course, anything less than passing would require that I resign from high school, not really having been worthy to be there in the first place, and return to the sixth grade where I would no doubt spend the rest of my tardy and delinquent life.  People often say the most stressful job in the world would be that of The President of the United States.  But none of them ever had Mrs. Scott for a science teacher, nor did any of them have to mow her lawn faced with the reminder of an overdue assignment.  Maybe the world would be a better place if one of them had, I don’t know.

Even after I stopped mowing lawns, I’d still run into her on occasion, and she would always smile.  She would also always remind me the debt was still real, and still not forgiven.  What happens to the time?  Decades passed.  I went to college, a tour of duty in service, got married, started a family, spent a short time in graduate school with my head in a cloud, and raised three sons.  Somehow the science project was pushed to the back burner, then off the stove, then into some deep dark corner where it probably froze to death.

Recently I learned that Mrs. Scott had passed away.  I was saddened by that news.  Few people have ever been nicer to me than she was.  Now I have a debt I can never repay.  By all standards of most religions, Mrs. Scott would be in Heaven now, and I’ll not be allowed in due to my real grade point average being so low.  A minister tried to tell me forgiveness for almost any wrong I could imagine was a gift available to me from the very Deity himself.  I told the minister I was not concerned about the Deity so much as I don’t think I could face Mrs. Scott.  The minister said if Mrs. Scott was there, she would certainly forgive me.  I told the minister he didn’t know Mrs. Scott.

Even if she did forgive me, there would have to be some penalty.  That would be only fair.  I remember one teacher who would accept work turned in after the deadline, but took off ten points for each calendar day it was late.  If Mrs. Scott took off only one point, and that for only each week it was late, by now I’d still have to give up every credential I’ve ever had, including my Social Security number and my birth certificate.

I asked the minister to describe Heaven a little bit.  I’d heard the term “Green Pastures”,  and asked him to tell me if grass really grew there.  His eyes lit up.  With some enthusiasm, he told of lusciously green and perfect lawns that would go on and on and on all through beautiful meadows and valleys for as far as the eye could see.  That was it.  I told him under the circumstances that I would surely be expected to spend eternity mowing it, so I might as well go to Hell.  It is often discouraging to see a man of the cloth give up so quickly and cry like that.

Trying to find humor in some situations is easier than others, and the converse is also true.  What makes us want to verbalize it can be a distraction sometimes, not just to ourselves, but to others.  When some curiosity to me seems to need sharing, I might hold it up to the light at more than one angle attempting to show it to others that may have found no fascination in it in the first place.  Not that I mind all that much, but some of you might not care to have such a thing pointed out about your behavior.  It might make you nervous, and therefore not at your best.

It’s perhaps difficult to fathom why a man who’s brain is restricted to an environment that can be surrounded loosely with just a size small hat would want to spend so much time in a world of his thinking.  But consider for a moment some things you might care to do that not everyone around you will wish to join in.  Quite often what challenges and excites us might seem to be a lot more fun than it would to those who would just take it for granted. When Forrest Gump decided to not be held back by his leg braces anymore, he discovered he could run.

During some interesting conversations with people well studied in behavior and psychology, some of the things described here might be attributed to Attention Deficit Disorder.  But that, as it is generally defined, is a rather subjective description and highly so.  It is not, at least at the point of this writing, a specific disease that can be clinically isolated and diagnosed with any scientific accuracy.

And other labels also lack the certainty of any final authority.  While some observations may lead to conclusions with some validity within the framework of how they are to be used, some of what is described symptomatically to be associated with ADD are also traits seen in other profiles that observe behavior.  The Myers Briggs Temperament Indicator that closely mirrors some of it is ENTP (extravert, intuitive, thinking, perceiving).  Using social style profiles, the Analytical Expressive matches well.  I’ve had these labels used to describe me on more than one occasion.

It was pointed out also, that I probably grew up as a right brain dominant in a left brain dominant world.  But how much value should we place on these handles and labels?  They are, after all, just tools to use for understanding, unless we reduce them to just a function used in judging.

And maybe we overemphasize how we use them in reference to ourselves.  When we do, they can become more of an excuse than a reason for things done in ways that differ from the expectations of others.  I am Reminded of Abraham Maslow’s caution that if the only tool we have is a hammer, we will tend to view all our problems as nails.

Maybe that’s it.  If I pick up three or four different kinds of hammers, the point would still be to identify only things that resemble nails, wouldn’t it?  Maybe Mrs. Scott did forgive me, after all.  Come to think of it, that happened the last day of the sixth grade when she smiled at me.  Maybe for a little while, she actually thought I might finish the project, but she was already on to other lessons.

Perhaps one lesson was to learn when and how to let go of things when they are no longer important, and to never allow something you know is not important to cause a hurt to somebody else, especially a child.  It’s a part of learning how to forgive others.  She obviously did, if we think about it, let me off the hook.

Perhaps another lesson was to cause me to be aware of and conscious of promises made and debts owed.  And, to think about consequences.  If that was the case, Mrs Scott was relentless, but very patient.  Integrity in that manner was important to my father and both of my grandfathers, not by just things said to me, but by the way they treated others.  So in a way, Mrs. Scott was reinforcing those principles, but in no punitive way.  She was still teaching.

The hard part sometimes, is learning how to forgive ourselves, especially when “forgiveness” isn’t really necessary.  I think some of my teachers saw me as a creative child.  I’ve since learned, that with the proper medication, we might’ve put a stop to that.

So you can say, “Van you never earned your graduation from grammar school; it was a gift.”  But isn’t education by the efforts of someone else always a gift?  Isn’t that what good teachers do, even if you’ve paid them?  I’m not saying the gift has to be allowing people to not do their work.  And I’m certainly not suggesting that higher degrees be conferred out of mere kindness to those who do not complete their thesis.  No, that isn’t the point I wish to make at all.

Looking back on it all now, I’m sure Mrs. Scott was well aware that I had grasped what she was trying to teach in the class that year, and additionally well beyond the lesson that would be learned by doing that final project.  She was on to teaching something else.  She was on to still helping me grow, even though I was outside the authority of her classroom.  She was loving me in a way that so many good teachers love their students every day, and in places all over the world.  But she just kept on doing it after the formalities of regimentation had ended.  It kind of reminds me of something I read in a book”

“Loving is an action.  It is the act of participating in the growth and development of someone other than yourself, spiritual or otherwise.” ~ M. Scott Peck, MD

That I was allowed to finish high school and college, and attend a little bit of graduate school was because of many wonderful gifts from a number of teachers.  I’ll not try to name them all here, as some are still living, and I’d not wish to embarrass them in that way.  Besides, the fact that I ever got any kind of a degree at all probably still weighs heavily upon their consciences enough as it is.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Oh Van, how I love this post with all its honesty and love, I feel so priveleged to be introduced to Mrs Scott. I’ve known one very special teacher that sounds rather like her in a different sort of way. These are the people who make such a difference and who we always remember. I am certain that she had a smile to herself every single day about you and that project.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Mickey Foster on September 16, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    So, what were your thoughts of the science project? I know of a refrigerator over on Little Torch where we could probably find evidence of a what could be a science project…I enjoyed reading the, always trying to find out where we were going….the hammer hit the nail true….she, in her wisdom, knew that you had learned the essence of her lesson. She also knew that you were not a science project kind of guy, and I’ll bet the Psychedelic Lollipop that she knew that you would go forth and do wonderful things……

    Reply

  3. Posted by Wayne Casasanta on September 16, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Van, does your Mother know that you did not do that assignment? If this news reaches her, your story may have a different ending, as well as your “rear-end” having a different feeling.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Betty on September 17, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Your life has proved that she was correct in passing you!!

    Reply

  5. Posted by little d on September 18, 2013 at 12:01 am

    Van, your story and analysis of it, is as well done and accurate in my opinion as one should wish. Its a fun read carrying itself with the Character of its Author, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted to say it here out loud !

    The fact is you still hold this lesson learned, its proportional comparison to most lessons in importance would place it near the top easily. That’s a hell of a project to get by default I would think, and if it was the well thought plans of an Educator, wow that would be really special wouldn’t it ?

    I’d be correct I think by placing the remarkability of this lesson on its Student, while not taking anything away from the Instructor, for she did indeed initiate the lesson. I wouldn’t know of course if Mrs.Scott knew her past students well during the span of time when you and her were apart, but she would have surely allowed shortcomings of student projects other than yours.

    I hope the others may have found the lesson by default that you did but I doubt it. Mrs.Scott would be so proud to know you finally turned it in Van, and even more proud of what you learned from it. I’m sure glad I got to see it.

    thanks again,

    little d

    Reply

    • Posted by thevanbrown on September 18, 2013 at 1:13 am

      little d, your words touched me here. You’re the first one to let me off the hook. I reckon Mrs. Scott would be just fine with that. Since 1960, this is the first time I’ve thought the assignment would ever come to conclusion. Writing this piece was in a way, a lot harder for me than it would’ve been to just do the science project in the first place. I never did do it in the first, second, third, or any of the other places, and have thought about it off and on now for fifty-three years. But if you can see it as a declaration of a lesson learned and call it passing enough, I’m willing to let it go. That’s the best closure I’ve gotten out of grammar school in a long time. Thank you for that.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Bonnie Stewart on September 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply

  7. I had the same thoughts as little d did: no science project you could possibly have executed on the original deadline would hold a candle to the depth and insight of this analysis of that whole chapter in your life. And it is expressed so beautifully, with so much warmth and understanding. It’s poignant, it’s funny and it’s wise.

    I’m sure that if you run into her again, Mrs. Scott will smile again and hand you a top grade for decades of research and unsparingly honest analysis of the science project you have presented here.

    Reply

  8. Nice article. I like the part about smiling.

    Reply

  9. Van I am so pleased to read this lovely piece of writing thank you albeit 6 weeks later. I wonder how I can get your blogs sent to me automatically.

    I can see Mrs. Scott smiling at you and your heart being uplifted. Bless all our teachers who in some way have helped us to grow in the world beyond their immediate influence. Mrs. Scott will no doubt be aware in some sort of quantum physics way that you have so honoured her by writing about her. She is smiling at you again.

    And I too am smiling – promises made and debts owed.

    ‘Perhaps another lesson was to cause me to be aware of and conscious of promises made and debts owed. And, to think about consequences. If that was the case, she was relentless, but very patient. Integrity in that manner was important to my father and both of my grandfathers, not by just things said to me, but by the way they treated others’. This is so poignant because of its truth.

    Thank you Van.

    Reply

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