A student tries to wing it for an improv speech in an English class, and gets busted!
We had just sat down in class when Mrs. K. announced that today we would give extemporaneous speeches. We couldn’t wait. For a 9th grade English class in 1964, it had been a very special experience. Mrs. K. was a dynamo, and had been stretching our performing abilities all year long, at every opportunity. We had acted in plays, put on skits for pep rallies, entered dramatic reading competitions and speech contests. Most of us had known each other since elementary school, and picking up Mrs. K.’s enthusiasm, had bonded together in a sort of team spirit, encouraging one another even as we competed.
So we looked forward to English because we never knew what might happen. Now it was spring, and we were feeling all the friskiness that comes with the warming of the weather. We were each to write a topic on a piece of paper, put them all in a hat, draw one and speak on it for three minutes. No problem, we thought. There was a lot of laughter as we tried to think up the most outrageous topic.
I came into this exercise confident in my performing ability, a veteran of many speech contests, a little cocky — no, actually a lot cocky. I also had a reputation as a jokester, and I couldn’t wait to see who had drawn my topic. It was a doozy and it was going to give someone fits.
As we began, several class members gave passable talks on relatively simple topics — a little above the summer vacation line, but not by far. It came my turn. I drew, looked, and my face fell. My topic was “How to Milk a Snake.” I just stood there, stunned. I had no idea what it meant. It brought up ridiculous visions of milking a snake like you would a cow. Even though I knew that was absurd, it was all I could think of. I could have asked for a clarification of the subject, but that seemed like taking the easy way out. My pride said to go ahead and wing it.
We had one minute to prepare. I slowly walked to the front of the class, my mind racing feverishly as I tried to figure a way to bail out of this one.
“How to milk a snake…,” I declared, and Bobby D. looked like he was choking; he began turning red and trying to muffle his snorts of laughter. I knew whose topic I had drawn. I still didn’t know what I was going to say.
Boldness is the key, I thought, say it boldly. Remember Bobby, I thought, you owe him for this turkey.
“The thing you have to do is be very careful, because most snakes don’t like to be milked. It’s best to tie them down, actually,” I confidently expounded, feeling ridiculous but trying not to show it. Bobby whispered to one, then the other, who joined in the rising swell of snickers floating through the room. I could feel the critical point approach.
“Once you have the snake secured, the thing to do then is to … actually … milk the snake …” The tide broke and the whole class began roaring with laughter. I could see Mrs. K. at the back of the room, her hand over her mouth, her eyes twinkling. I was puzzled. It seemed to be more laughter than the speech should cause. I smelled a rotten fish.
In a rush, having avoided the mystery of the actual operation, I began what I felt was a very erudite commentary: “Once the milk has been gathered, then the process of homogenizing and canning can begin. Then the milk is ready to be sold for consumption.” My mind racing, I realized I had a thread of an idea, and began to run with it. “Since there is, by quantity, relatively little of this product, I can foresee a whole new industry based on snake’s milk, with it becoming a popular new delicacy.” I was rolling now, and finished out the allotted time in a rush by forecasting a new national industry based upon snakes’ milk.
Relieved, I joined the laughter and went to find out what was so funny. Bobby, between gasps, explained that milking a snake meant extracting the venom from its fangs.
I knew how badly I’d been had. Like I had planned for someone else. As my mind replayed my speech in light of that information, I began laughing too, especially at the national delicacy of snake’s milk. All in all, though, considering what I had to work with and what I knew about it, I felt like I did pretty well.
Boldness is the key. My foot! Sometimes a little humility can help, too.
Note: This is a true story. I went to a 40th high school reunion last summer, and Bob D. and I shared a good laugh about this speech.
“Bronx Zoo Cobra from the Center for Missing or Exploited Snakes” Mike Licht @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
Previously published in Thoughts Along The Road To Healing