Monday, October 12, 2015

Memory of an Elocution Piece (1975)

When you read the phrase “bloody, but unbowed,” what comes to mind? If I am right, most of you would say, Invictus by William Ernest Henley:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

In my case, however, the phrase “bloody, but unbowed,” triggers a different memory.

Flashback to 1975, second year high school. Our English teacher gave us a piece of paper with an elocution piece entitled, “Bloody, but Unbowed.” This piece, however, was not Invictus. It was a portion of Edmund Campion’s, I am a Catholic. The same three words, however, were there. We were to memorize it and, after about a week or so, we would be required to recite it in front of the class (I believe it was equivalent to a quiz).

I got down to work. For the next several days, I went over and over that piece in typical memorizing fashion. I would start at the beginning and recite until I got to the point where I couldn’t remember the next line. I would peek at the sheet and then go back to the start. After about three or four days, I reached the end. I recited the piece one more time without looking at the sheet and, again, reached the end. That was it, I had memorized the piece.

On the big day, I waited for my turn and watched my classmates perform. A few stumbled but everyone finished the piece. My name was called and I confidently walked up the the front of the class. I started off well. And why not, I had memorized the piece, hadn’t I?

Somewhere near the middle of the piece, I stopped. I couldn’t remember what came next. I tried going back to the previous sentence but again stopped at the same place. I tried again but it was hopeless. I had well and truly forgotten the next line. After about half a minute, our teacher told me to sit down and wrote in his record book.

It was an episode I tried to forget.

Fast forward to 2015. The unwanted memory has reappeared after reading Invictus, triggered by three words out of 103. It was time for a personal evaluation. What have I learned in 12 years of public speaking that I can apply to an experience that happened 40 years ago?

If I had made it to the end during practice, why did I forget half the piece during the actual delivery? It wasn’t fear. I was confident that I had it memorized. I made two mistakes in the days prior to the event.

  1. I had not given myself time to memorize. When I successfully recited the piece twice, I  assumed it would be enough. It was four days more to the big day. That’s four days that I should have used to make sure I completely memorized the piece. And since I had kept starting over from the beginning, I remembered the first half better than the last half and I probably forgot it in the stress of the moment.
  2. I had recited the piece like I was reading it. The content and intent of the piece had no meaning for me. It was just another bunch of words on a sheet of paper, written in 1581, by a person I didn’t know. If I had taken the time to digest the piece, to get into the shoes of Edmund Campion (well, he was a prisoner. He probably didn’t have shoes on), I might have connected the words with the emotions that goes with it. Reciting the piece would, therefore, have had more meaning and I would have gone from memorizing to internalizing the speech. By internalizing the speech, it would have become part of me and I would have performed better.

The memory of this fiasco had been so efficiently buried that it had not figured in any way with my decision to join Toastmasters, which was fortunate. Otherwise, I might have not taken the chance and life would have been very different indeed.

Has it happened again?

There were a few close calls but, no, that terrible moment of the mind going blank has never reared its ugly head again. Toastmasters training made sure of that.

Your Honor, I stand here before you, a broken wreckage of a man. This trembling piece of clay that cowers at your feet, human brutes have battered to a bloody, senseless pulp. No part of it has not quivered under mailed fist or bludgeoning jack. These eyes that bore through you like a hunted beast’s have been drained of sleep for days on end. This body that scarce can stand upon its feet they have starved to skin and bones, till now it is a shadowy skeleton, groping blindly to its grave. Whatever fiendish torture the hounds of Hell could conjure, they have tried on me, till this flesh could endure no more, and there was only the razor’s edge between this life and the next.

They broke my body, Your Honor; they tried to break my soul. Into my weakened limbs, they injected drugs that slithered through my brains and coiled around the stronghold of my will like a brood of poisonous snakes. Ten times ten thousand harrowing moments, the citadel was all but fallen; the gates of the castle all but flung open. Today, I stand here before you, as my torturers hope, a man with a broken soul.

Your Honor, my soul has not been crushed to shattered fragments. By the grace of God it has come out bloody, but unbowed.

No comments:

Post a Comment