Speech therapy: confronting my primary-school demons

Column, originally published in the Times Education Supplement 7 March 2014

‘How would you like to take an assembly’, asked my head, the day after I took over the reigns as chair of the school governing body.  ‘Your predecessor, the Vicar, used to do them quite often’.

A shiver ran down my spine.  I am comfortable chairing meetings and have delivered lectures to halls of several hundred adults without so much as a butterfly.  Yet the thought of standing in front of 250 junior-school pupils filled me with dread.  Considering it better to keep my weaknesses under my hat, at least for the moment, though, I replied with emphatic enthusiasm. Privately, I wondered whether the eventuality could be indefinitely postponed?

That was a mistake.  Within days a member of the school’s ‘leadership team’ was on the phone to suggest an ‘inspiring talk’ about my ‘exciting professional life as a journalist’.  It would be an ‘enormous boost for the school’, they predicted.  The local MP had been in the previous week, someone from the town’s football club a couple of months before, and county’s police chief had all but promised an appearance next term.

To my horror, a date was fixed.

Pondering what to actually say, I realised that the truth was useless.  My daily routine, at that point, placed me squarely behind a desk.  Much of my time was spent on the phone, commissioning work from colleagues; during the remainder, I processed articles as they were submitted and checked page layouts.  A motivational talk crafted from my working life had the entertainment potential of a paint-drying contest.  So, I followed that most vital journalistic adage – it takes imagination to fill an empty page.

Thinking back over a 25-year career I cobbled together sufficient highlights to fashion into a YouTube-length review.  I had interviewed a couple of senior politicians, reported on a disaster and even attended Madonna’s wedding, in my time.  All of that I worked up into what I hoped was a vivid, if misleading, tableaux of my life as a reporter.

Cometh the day, I was terrified that the kids sniff fear and see through my confection.  It was a nightmare intensified as the head welcomed me to the front of the hall, enthusiastically talking up my credentials as I approached.  ‘Children, today we are joined by a very, very important person – in fact he is my boss’, the head intoned with theatrical gusto.  Several more lines of hyperbolic praise followed, as cold sweat soaked my shirt.

And then, to my great surprise, I found myself in front of a rapt audience – a roomful of intent eyes boring into me.  I told my tales – burbling a bit, no doubt – but the children could not get enough.  When eventually I ran out of steam, their questions came in a torrent.  Had I met One Direction?  Could I obtain the autographs of any famous footballers?  And had I ever hacked anyone’s phone?  (No, on all three counts, in case you are interested.)

Afterwards in the staff room, I struggled to recover my composure.   ‘That wasn’t a challenge for you was it’, inquired one quizzical member of the school’s senior staff?  I was too frazzled to respond.  To fill the conversational hiatus, my interrogator started to relate how terrifying he found it speaking to adult audiences.  He conspired to avoid ever having to do so, he told me – despite spending his working life at the front of a classroom delivering what I knew to be acclaimed lessons.

Are there morals to this story?  Perhaps.   Although it will be a while before I volunteer for another assembly, at least I know that there are worse fates than addressing a school hall.  And despite the sangfroid that teachers usually display when I watch them at work, I realise that I am not the only one who is occasionally consumed with irrational fears.  Love or loath your school governing body,  it provides an opportunity for all concerned to work outside their comfort zones – a useful, if incidental benefit to all those meetings.