When You Quote Your Own 7th Grade Teacher

My 7th grader asks me for tips on public speaking for her speech due tomorrow. Her teacher calls this a 3-5 minute TED talk. I’m lounging next to her bed as she puts the final touches on her document on her laptop. I had just returned the night before from a speaking event in South Carolina.

How different my 7th grade life was without laptops and TED talks! Yet I have some advice to offer from decades before–from 1988–when I sat with a notepad and pencil in Mrs. Ellen Phillips’ Speech class at Carl Sandburg Middle School.

Oh, how I loved that wonderful woman!

I stand up before my daughter and dramatically position my hands by my sides in a ready position to begin speaking. I tell her what Mrs. Phillips told me two decades ago. “Three things, Kate: Eyes, Hands, and Feet. You make eye contact around the room. You make hand gestures that match what your sentence says. You move to the right, left, and then the middle as you accentuate key points. And then, you chose a key word in each sentence to emphasize. You have to modulate your voice.”

I can’t believe I remember so clearly that year of Speech class and then the personal weekly coaching of Mrs. Phillips as I began to compete in oratory competitions that year. I wrote speeches for the Optimist Oratory Club, and Mrs. Phillips went with me to every competition–on weeknights, on weekends, and then even traveling across the state when I advanced from Districts to Regionals and then to States. I wore a dress my mother sewed for me, and I remember the weight of the medals placed around my neck for each prize-winning speech.

The whole time, Mrs. Phillips coached me. She taught me about poise and power and winning and losing graciously. Why? Why me? Why then? I was 12 years old and spending every day memorizing speeches I titled, “Destiny! Choice Not Chance” and “Challenge the Summit.” My parents cheered me on as I paced around the house to work on Eyes, Hands, Feet, and that accentuated key word. I became an expert in speech writing and memorization.

And it was all because of her.

Mrs. Phillips was the best coach I ever had. Bless her. I thought of her all day as I stood before my own daughter, as Mrs. Phillips stood before me, and passed on her legacy. And how could Mrs. Phillips ever know that I would one day speak on stages all over the nation as part of my career? Of all my teachers, today I am most thankful for her.

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