Dr. Bellows wore plaid shirts without fail. I remember this because the shape of his round belly played tragic games with the stripes in the pattern. The result was something like latitude and longitude markings on a lumpy globe that orbited the room at least twice during each class. I had decided from the first day that I would not learn much from Dr. Bellows. After all, I was a national finalist in one of the most competitive speech contests in the country. This was a “gimme” class. I needed an easy “A” to make up for the dismal prospects offered by “Dr. Pass-Me-If-You-Can” in Music History.
By the end of the semester, I had managed to pass Music History (through much prayer and fasting). It was instead Speech 101 that presented the biggest challenge. In the end, it was Dr. Bellows, a walking globe with headlight-sized horn-rims and a hair cut reminiscant of Nicholas from “Eight is Enough” who almost failed me, and in doing so taught me perhaps one of the most important lessons of my young adult life.
The speech was on the business of song writing. Being a music business major, material on the subject was plentiful. The delivery was artful, if I do say so myself. It had humor. It had drama. It earned me a standing ovation. Excuse me while I move to the head of the class. That’s right. State Public Speaking Champion coming through. Yes, it’s a gift. No, I’m not sure autographs are appropriate right now. Perhaps after class.
Now, I’m being silly. I actually only gave one autograph after class, and that one just basically committed me to bring something salty to the next Band Social. Shortly thereafter, I made my way to Dr. Bellows, who was seated on his axis at the rear of the room. I had yet to receive his certain praise, and I swelled at the prospect. What wonderful words might he use to describe my eloquence, my mastery of the oratory? Perhaps he would even ask me to teach the class next week while he took some time off for that long overdue visit to the barbershop.
“Mr. Abbott.” He beckoned me forward. “Have a seat Mr. Abbott.” Wow, this was gonna take some time. I must have been better than I thought.
“Brilliant speech, Mr. Abbott.”
“Thank you, sir.” I said, waiting, hoping for more.
“You’re clearly the best speaker in the class.”
“Thank you, sir.” Man, I love that part.
“I almost hate to fail you on this speech.”
My mind hit the rewind button. For a moment, I thought he said “fail.” No, he must have said, “hail,” as in “hail you as the magnificent speaker you are.”
“Mr. Abbott. You can’t BS a BS’er. Your delivery was wonderful. But no one cared, because you said nothing. I actually know less now that I did before I heard you speak. Your reliance on rhetoric is alarming.”
The gaping whole that was my mouth invited all manner of flying things to enter at will.
“Next time, Mr. Abbott, I want you to remember one thing. How you speak will mean nothing unless you actually have something to say.”
I turned 34 the other day. And like my age, real life has descended upon me like Sitting Bull on Custard. Yet as I reflect upon the sweet chaos that is my world, I have started seeing things I’ve never seen before. I hear sounds I’ve never heard before. I feel weights I’ve never felt before. And from all of this I am learning (thanks to Dr. Bellows) how to say things I’ve never said before. I have finally stopped obsessing over how I speak. I have finally started focusing on what I say.
And to my surprise, I really do have something to say.