The CBC radio host asked, “Do you remember your first day of school?”
I remember it as clearly as the crisp Alberta air in September. Mother was off to a new teaching assignment and, at the age of five, I was officially going to school – not just sitting on the fringes of her classroom. I would finally join my older brother and sister at the one room school where Mr. MacDonald would roll his Scottish “r”s over our lives of early learning.
The room was as sparse as the school district’s budget. The clean blackboard was crowned by the alphabet. No pictures were posted to incite questions or wonder.
Old Man MacDonald, as my brother and sister called him, greeted us with a point to certain rows for certain grades. I dashed to mine and grabbed the first seat. I was in heaven. For a kid with only older siblings, front and foremost was luxury.
MacDonald stood tapping two fingers on my desk. He boomed in brogue, “Does anyone in this row know how to rrrrread?”
My hand shot up with pride.
He didn’t appear to notice. He just asked another question, “How many of you know how to doooo numbers?
Up with my hand again, even more enthusiastically. MacDonald looked down at me and said, “Amy, please take the last seat in this row.”
My first day of school began with a battle against silent shame that I had done something horribly wrong. I’d show him, I decided.
Twenty some years later, as a Training Officer employed by a Canadian Financial firm, my assignment was to write and facilitate a new management training program. I studied a new, transformative adult training approach in Kansas City that revolutionized typically boring adult learning situations. It required full participation of each attendee. No more “spray and pray” – spurt the facts and hope they get it. No more lecturing, reading aloud, or relying on videos to preach the principles. This approach validated one’s own skill acquisition. Participating managers would perform tasks and, with the help of other managers, would safely see where they needed improvement.
After writing the training material, it was time to polish my facilitator skills. I wanted them to be so natural they’d be invisible. I was thrilled to find the perfect course at Carleton University in Ottawa. After receiving approval and adjusting travel plans with colleagues, I registered for the course. I rushed through the days prior to boarding the plane in London, Ontario. I finally had time to read the course’s preparatory material.
My breath stopped. Embedded in the first paragraph, “Come prepared to teach the other participants a measurable skill within a 5 minute presentation.”
Where were the exit doors? I had no resource materials. A change of planes in Toronto meant I’d arrive late in Ottawa. I was in a panic. I considered returning to London from Toronto.
Like my first day with Mr. MacDonald, I felt an unwelcome dose of shame in the midst of raw enthusiasm.
As we landed in Toronto, I stuffed the problem back into my briefcase. I decided to keep going and ran to make my connection. I’d pray for an idea, get to my hotel in Ottawa and have a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, at Carleton, the professor marched into the lecture room and said, “Who wants to be first.” I shot my hand up. I needed to admit that I came without a presentation. I couldn’t bear the knot in my stomach. I had to get this confession over with!
“Thank you. You will be second,” he said to me and, without hesitation asked the question again. “Who’ll go first?”
Steam rollered! ‘Damn, I thought, what a rotten example of facilitating. He reminds me of MacDonald!’
A man had put up his hand. The Prof directed our #1 presenter to the front as he walked to the back of the room to a waiting video camera. He said, “Oh by the way. Each presentation will be video taped. Once your five minutes are up, we’ll watch the tape and begin our critique.”
The man’s presentation took 5 minutes and the painful critique took the rest of the morning. Knowing the Prof mistook my confessional attempt for courage, I was sick with dread. At lunch, I barely managed a few lettuce leaves and a cup of strong tea.
Deciding to simply prepare a confessional statement for the group, I left lunch early. One of the other women ran to catch up with me. Not only did I need to be alone, she had deep, distracting and annoying hiccups. She said, “I’m glad you left early. I may need some help. – hic – When I get hiccups they don’t go away easily. I use several techniques to try to get rid of them. So if you are going to prepare your -hic- presentation, please ignore me while I do my best to stop -hic- these damned things. But I may need a little help with water.”
Suddenly a light went on! “Don’t stop them,” I said excitedly.
“PLEASE! You’ll save my life if you keep hiccuping. Honest you’ll see why I’m saying this.”
My new friend sat hiccuping gallantly as the participants returned to the room. Various people mumbled suggestions to her, but I’d just smile at her and shake my head.
With knees knocking, but with immeasurable enthusiasm, I began my presentation. “Today I’m going to teach you a successful method to stop hiccups. Marla tells me she has them frequently and has great difficulty getting rid of them. What’s the average amount of time you have to tolerate these, Marla, before they go away?”
“Oh, -hic- a half hour if I’m lucky.”
“Thank you, Marla. Now, I want each of you to quickly take a bill out of your wallet and place it on the table in front of you.”
With respect for my limited time, they responded quickly. “How much would you say is on the table?” People threw out estimates…perhaps $100. “Write down how much money you have in front of you and show the people beside you.”
Thankfully, Marla’s hiccups continued – strong and regular. My knees were still vibrating and I prayed this simple technique, successful every time I used it, would not let me down today.
“Okay, pass the money to me. Pass it along quickly!”
When the bills arrived, I carried the bonanza to Marla. “Marla. Listen very carefully. This money could be yours! This whole pile of bills can be yours. I’m holding my other hand up. When I lower it, all you HAVE to do is…hiccup – loud and clear – and then the money is yours. BUT YOU HAVE TO HICCUP. After my hand comes down. Okay?”
She nodded and hiccupped. I continued, “There’s a pile of money here. I’m going to lower my hand in a second BUT you MUST hiccup. A good, loud, deep hiccup. Okay? The hand is now… DOWN!”
Marla could not hiccup.
The five minute timer rang. Still, Marla had not hiccupped. Her hiccups were gone. All the money was returned to the participants.
When the video was played back, I couldn’t believe how my determination appeared as confidence.
Is that what Old Man MacDonald had seen when a five year old kid only wanted to be heard? Did he also trust I had the ability to stay enthusiastic even after the bumps and grinds experienced by others?
I flew back to London marvelling over having been moved to the back of the row again. Mr. MacDonald passed me into Grade Two without any fanfare. However, when I told the Prof why my presentation ended up capturing the moment, he said, “I suggest you learned a great deal more than this course had to offer.”