by Brian Tomasik
Presented on 5 March 2004 as the second speech I gave to my high-school "public speaking" class.
Uploaded 6 Aug. 2017.
You might not normally think of an hour-long class taken in addition to the regular school day as the type of experience that would change the way you look at the world. But for me, Earth Science in eighth grade was just that.
The reason was that I had an excellent teacher, whom I'll call Mr. X. Mr. X is a patient and quiet man, with thick, black hair and small, round glasses; he wore an interesting new tie every day of the year.
The ideas Mr. X introduced were always fascinating in and of themselves. But he made the class even more enjoyable with odd references or interesting thoughts. For instance, he carried a physically weathered pebble named “Pierre” with him at all times (“Pierre” is French for “rock”). A character named “Agnes” seemed to appear on almost every test, always involved in one situation or another. After we watched a geology video, he repeatedly brought up the fact mentioned in it that James Hutton had a dog named “Missy”: it was the answer to a multiple-choice question on one of his tests and it was a term on one of the many vocabulary sheets we filled out. I even managed, at his suggestion, to weave Missy into my answer to one of the free-response questions on the Earth Science Regents exam.
Most important of these unconventional ideas was Mr. X’s ardent belief in the utter foolishness of the English unit system and in the simple genius of the metric system. [I ask the class:] “Would anyone from the audience like to estimate the length of this room?” [If the answerer says “x feet”, I’ll say the following.] “I don’t think I can accept that answer. Anyone else?” [Eventually, I would say the answer in meters if no one else did.] That was the type of response Mr. X would give to a student who gave him an answer in the English system of measurement. One of his classroom walls displayed a series of pictures of Beanie Babies, each of which was labeled with its name. Under the picture of the inchworm was written its name, “Inch,” but next to that name was written, in parentheses, “(2.54 cm).” Mr. X even created a metric clock with his computer, and posted a suggestion for a 13-month calendar on a website for new ideas. All of this instilled in me an appreciation for those human designs which are rational and avoid gratuitous overcomplication; to this day, I—like Mr. X—refuse to make measurements in anything but the metric system. More broadly, it was these unique traits and ideas that Mr. X brought to his subject that showed me just how enjoyable and humorous science can be.
Mr. X is perhaps best known for the difficulty of his tests. Yet, he had good reason for this. If the tests were easy, he would often say, students would not learn very much and would not get better; it would be like trying to become an expert at ping pong by always playing against your little sister. By making the tests challenging, students are forced to make mistakes and encounter problems that expand their scope of understanding. It was this attitude—that facing challenges is the only way to become better at something—that converted any frustration I may have felt into motivation to continue trying and into enjoyment of the process of solving a tough problem.
The fostering of this interest and sheer excitement in working on a challenging question may have been Mr. X’s most important and enduring impact on me. Mr. X guided the class through many demonstrations of the connections between math and science. He once asked us this question: “Which will have more air space between the particles: a beaker filled with small, spherical particles, or a beaker filled with large, spherical particles?” [I draw the diagrams on the chalk board to illustrate this. Then ask the audience the following.] “Would anyone in the audience like to offer a guess?” [If no one answers, say:] “The answer is that they have the same amount of total air space. The amount of space between spherical particles does not depend on the diameter of those particles.” Not only did this demonstration encourage my love of mathematics, but it also showed me how useful math can be in fully understanding scientific concepts.
It was, furthermore, this inquisitive spirit that impelled me to pursue challenges of my own. Near the end of the year, during our unit on space, Mr. X mentioned a car commercial he had seen in which a driver, after watching the sun set below the horizon, accelerated his vehicle so quickly that the sun reappeared above the horizon again. I soon realized that the concept could make an interesting challenge: Assuming that the earth were completely spherical and covered entirely with flat land, at what latitude would the driver in the commercial have to be located in order for him to keep the sun in the same spot in the sky by driving at a constant speed of 150 km/h along one of the parallel circles of the Earth’s latitude? I finally answered the problem with Mr. X’s help; moreover, I am convinced that had I heard about the same commercial a year earlier, before my exposure to Mr. X’s novel ways of thinking, I would not have even thought to contrive such a problem.
This spirit of excitedly assailing puzzles has stayed with me. In 9th grade, I helped to found “Math Club” at the high school for this very purpose. I completed a list of possible solutions to a “clock problem” that Mr. X first developed. I invented and wrote tentative solutions to a “pyramid problem,” a “bingo problem,” and a problem asking the probability that any two people in a class of twenty will share the same birthday. I have written down questions to ask Mr. X, both puzzles I wanted him to solve and actual questions I was curious about.
There were many aspects of Mr. X’s teaching style that shaped my approach to learning. He emphasized the value of understanding concepts rather than memorizing more than the basic facts. At the same time, his novel methods of instruction and his interestingly different ideas made his class thoroughly enjoyable. Most importantly, his example showed me that the tackling of difficult challenges—whether in mathematics or in other areas of life—can be the most rewarding experience of all.
Overall, I think the speech went quite well. I continue, however, to need the most improvement in the area of voice. I believe I was loud enough for everyone to hear me at all times, and I think that my water bottle did help to keep my throat moist. Again I avoided the interjection of words like “ah” and “um” to fill silence. The vocabulary and sentence variation of the speech were quite strong, especially since I had practiced the speech so many times beforehand. However, I noticed that I had a little trouble toward the end in formulating the sentences I wanted to articulate and that many times I had to restart sentences to say them correctly; I think this was due to mental tiredness after speaking for several minutes straight. I also failed to use intonation to a significant extent to emphasize certain words or points. I began the speech consciously trying to intonate as much as would seem natural, but I soon became so involved in the other elements of delivery that I largely forgot about intonation. I plan to practice intonation more consciously during my rehearsals of the speech so that by the time of the actual presentation, I will not have to think about it nearly as much.
The body language of the speech was better. As before, my hand gestures were soft and illustrative rather than distracting. My props and use of the board seemed to help the audience get a better sense of my subject matter, and my movement around the circle of the room may have helped to keep the audience’s attention as well. I tried the technique of walking to a location and then stopping there to pause before walking again; however, I think I may have shifted a bit too much during the pauses for this to work completely. Next time, I hope to fine-tune my movement style so that it is engaging rather than potentially distracting.
As before, eye contact was fairly well sustained: I only looked at my outline during natural breaks in the speech’s flow. However, I continued to notice that the area of my eye contact was largely confined to those people in the front rather than those in the back and off to the side. I did consciously remember to spread the eye contact around at times, but it was probably not consistent enough for some audience members to feel as if I spoke directly to them. As with intonation, I will consciously practice spreading out eye contact during rehearsal so it does not require as much thought during the presentation itself.
The content of my speech was very good. Not only did I include detailed elaboration of several examples showing Mr. X’s powerful teaching style, but I also explained exactly how that teaching style impacted my approach to learning. My use of objects and my drawing on the blackboard were especially helpful in making my statements real and understandable to the audience. I plan to continue providing full explanations and incorporating helpful visual aids.
When I practice my next speech, I need to focus particularly on an effective movement style, on conscious intonation, and on spreading equal eye contact to all members of the audience.