"My Stan Laurel Moment" by Michael Berberich

Michael Berberich

Michael Berberich

Michael Berberich has taught writing and humanities at Galveston College for twenty-one years and has been published several times in Notre Dame Magazine. He was also published in the special John McPhee edition of Creative Nonfiction, which featured (aside from McPhee) pieces by Phillip Lopate, Ellen Gilchrist, and others. He was listed on the cover of that issue under "and others," a designation he takes no small delight in. For several years, Michael also wrote a column for the Two-Year College English Association's Southwest regional newsletter (TYCA-SW Newsletter), which went to 1,500 community college English teachers in six southwest states.

My Stan Laurel Moment


They say most people would rather eat live scorpions than try their hand at public speaking. Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, even ones with special ops and green beret training—in other words the kind of folks who may well actually have eaten live scorpions-have been known to stand before a microphone and turn into simpering, quivering, knock-kneed boobs. I can well sympathize with any war hero or lesser mortal called upon to take the microphone in front of a crowd. For, you see, I am Exhibit “A” for giving the worst first speech ever.

My task was simple. I was to introduce an almost well known visiting poet to a couple of hundred people at a college literary festival. Talk for a minute, fill the moment with encomiums, and get my rear end off the stage. That was my charge. That's not what happened, of course, and to add insult to injury in the matter I brought a whole kit and caboodle of inglorious disaster upon myself. Thus I offer to you this little tale of woe.

In what my two sisters fondly refer to as “typical Michael fashion,” I waited 'til the last minute to seek biographical information and put my presentation together. In this instance, however, there were not all that many encomiums to be found, which kind of goes with the territory with being an almost famous poet. You might be thinking what's the big deal? You just google and behold!—in .27 of a second you have your wish granted 27,314 times. People pull this kind of thing off all the time, of course. Hardly a thought has been given to the fact that, as I hereby attest, it wasn't always this way.

For you see in the pre-Google, pre-Twitter, pre-MySpace, pre-FaceBook, even pre-PowerPoint days of yore of my first public engagement, a blackberry was something your mom tossed onto your cereal because cereal hadn't been vitamin fortified yet. In the 1970s you couldn't just flip open an iPhone and troll for something that would, at the last minute, save the day. You could not voice activate razzle dazzle fireworks displays complete with handy dandy color bursts of stars cascading down the screen behind you and hope to get away with style over substance. You couldn't just link to the hippest hip hop video on YouTube and then play it on the screen behind you to distract the audience from the fact that you did not know a thing (except how to distract your audience from the fact that you did not know a thing). And hip hop or not, back in the day it was not that easy to be hip, my bell bottoms of “the day” (now worth a fortune on E-bay) notwithstanding.

No. I bungled my first speech in an era when you were up there by your little ol' lonesome self, looking to all the world like you'd provided the inspiration for Basquiat's first painting. “Back in the day” to prepare for a speech you did exactly what I did. You listed main points on 3 x 5 index cards, one point and no more than two sub-points per card. You used different colored pens to write each point. You arranged your cards in order, and then—voila!—you were as my father liked to put it “loaded for bear.

So there I was. Only I was not loaded for bear. I wasn't loaded with so much as a pop gun. I might have fared better had I been loaded with something else. Maybe ten minutes before show time I rushed in from looking at obscure periodicals in the library. I was introduced to the almost well known poet backstage. “Are you ready?” he asked, ever so confident that the praises I had listed on the index cards in my clammy hands would almost make him blush in modesty. “Ready as I'll ever be,” I said.

He was looking past me, looking over my shoulder. He seemed almost disappointed I was not the adorable red-headed lass attentively smiling at the couple of gentlemen she was with. The almost well known poet lived for such smiles. At least from attentive young co-eds. The red-headed lass would be introducing the evening's headliner, a genuinely well known poet of international regard.

I admitted that I was a bit nervous. The almost well known poet I was to introduce had been through it all before. He told me he had “every confidence” in me and that he was sure all would turn out well. He would try not to be too embarrassed as I listed “just a few” of his “major” accomplishments. Yes, unpublished undergraduate me, longing for the day when I too would be almost well known and about to speak to an audience of a hundred or so, would extol his virtues in such a way that the cute red-headed lass would turn her smile his way and swoon. My introduction would give the pretty red-headed lass plenty to compliment the almost well known poet on during the post-event party at the distinguished professor's house.

Before I could review my notes, the festival chair jabbed my spine and nudged me onto the stage: “Let's get'er going,” he said. “You're on.”

I walked across the stage-the only thing I did exceedingly well that fateful night. Reaching center stage I turned to the left, took a step forward and there I stood behind the university's broad, stately, polished walnut podium. I looked up, directly out at the audience. With the audience's view of my hands obscured by the podium, I removed the smeary, sweat-moistened 3 x 5 index cards from the lower inside pocket of my sport jacket. So far I was slicker than slick.

I moved my little stack of index cards to the space above the gently tilting plane of the podium and let go. With my cards on the podium, at a glance I could read each point and color-differentiated sub-points, gently flip to the next card, and smoothly deliver my introduction saying wonderful things about the almost well known poet with the crush on the red-headed girl who would later and with perfect aplomb introduce the genuinely well known poet of international regard.

There was only one problem. My little stack of 3 x 5 index cards decided not to cooperate. My little stack of 3 x 5 index cards did not land neatly on the podium. They did not even land not-so-neatly on the podium. The whole sticky clump missed the podium altogether. The whole sticky clump fell to the floor and in an instant my index cards were unclumped. In fact, they were very unclumped. I was toast.

Every word of the speech I had memorized nary a word of lay in a jumbled mess at my feet. My index cards lay scattered behind the base of the podium where no one but me could see them. The wheel of misfortune had spun and there I was legs and arms splayed, my head upside down in the half past the hour position. In that instant I knew there would be no glad welcome for me at the distinguished professor's post-event party, no winsome smile and “Michael, you were awesome!” greeting from the red-headed lass as she came forward and hugged me to escape the boorish attention of the almost well known poet. My life's Stan Laurel moment had arrived, lacking only Oliver Hardy at my side to dourly proclaim, “Well, Stanley, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into” whilst fingers in mouth I blubbered the moment away. Suddenly, my life was looking pretty bleak.

Three decades later I remember every word of the little look-in-the-mirror conversation I had with myself as I stood speechless on the stage. But first I must make such a confession as I am not supposed to make in public. I have a reputation to uphold, after all. In time I went on to become a teacher, and this semester I conclude my 25th year of teaching in community colleges and universities. And in the same way that parents exercise, shall we say, a certain discretion in the editing of their life narratives to their children likewise so do we teachers conveniently “disremember” (to borrow a presidential phrasing) some of our own peccadilloes.

So at the risk of becoming Mr. Bad Example here is my “fessing up.” You see, I had taken a speech course the semester before my bungled introduction of Mr. Almost Well Known Poet. And here is my true confession (put on my best Alfred E. Newman face): my speech course was the class I goofed off in more than any other class in my college career.

So lax was I that at the end of the semester, just for grins, I tallied up the amount of time I had put in working on the course outside of class. Six hours. Maybe. And that includes everything: homework, studying, writing short reviews, even the research paper analyzing great speakers, their oratorical styles, and their rhetorical techniques. (That last one, by the way, is easily accomplished. You pick Winston Churchill, talk about “wit,” and “elegance of style,” throw in a few fifty dollar words like “prescient” and “perspicacious” and there you have it-instant success.) Yep, six hours maximum in out-of-class preparation. Not even a rehearsal of one of my speeches prior to class. And the reward for such industriousness? An “A.” Don't ask me how.

So there I was, Mr. “A” in Public Speaking, gazing upon a sea of almost 200 expectant faces. My first thought, quite naturally, was “Oh putz” (or a loose variation thereof). Next came the little life-changing, look-in-the-mirror conversation with myself. Michael, I said, you are about to go on display to the whole wide world as a full blown idiot. Your speech lies scattered across the floor and you don't remember a single thing you wrote on those cards. Why? Because you, my friend, put everything together at the last minute.

But I learned. Life Lesson #1: NEVER-EVER-again do anything this important at the last minute. (The keeping of this resolution, I might note, I have devoted my very life to and followed without exception in all the years since, taking the lesson of that horrifying moment to heart and thus accounting for the heights of success I have gone on to accomplish in all areas of life, a habit which anyone—save for my two sisters—will swear on a stack of bibles that I have {scouts honor!} fanatically adhered to lo these many years. I am now nothing if not over-prepared for every occasion and contingency in every situation I come upon in life.)

So that was my first thought as I stood dumbfounded before my audience of nearly 300 with an almost well known poet still, with bated breath, awaiting my every accolade. He could not have guessed that to go with his bated breath I would give a bated speech.

But there was that second life altering discourse that ran through my head as I stared at the dashed hopes and dismal prospects that now lay before me. Michael, says I, you know, giving impromptu speeches was covered in a chapter of the book in your speech class. I believe the title of the chapter was “Extemporaneous Speech.” It was the chapter you didn't read.

It was true. I hadn't read a word of our textbook. I continued my lecture to self: Had you attended your business, had you read so much as the first page of the chapter on “Extemporaneous Speech,” you might have some inkling of how to handle this most distressful situation.

Then—in that terrifying instant—I remembered something else. And, Michael, the topic of how to give an extemporaneous speech was covered in class as well.

Like the ghost of Hamlet, a recollection emerged from the fog. I thought back carefully, or as carefully as might be possible in a dire panic. From the perspective of a few added years, I now recognize the truth. Extemporaneous speech may have been covered on the day the legendarily lovely Natalia Bourganevskaya sat next to me for the only time that semester and to the thrill of my heart's deepest longing even once cast a glance my way. Whether actually looking at me or perhaps, more likely, looking at my notes for the upcoming test, I could not tell with any degree of certainty-so I figured the odds, ultimately coming to the conclusion that it never hurt to entertain oneself then (or now) with the thought that it was the former rather than the latter motive that prompted her to sit next to me. All this because the legendarily lovely Natalia Bourganevskaya was also legendarily lazy and never even opened the speech book, probably never even bought the speech book in the first place knowing full well it would have been a waste of her parents' money, which when you get right down to it means that you had one intellectual advantage over the her: you at least knew there was a chapter in the book you hadn't read on how to handle impromptu and extemporaneous “speech occasions,” as they referred to such indelicate moments back then, whereas the legendarily lovely, legendarily lazy, and generally but not legendarily stupid Natalia Bourganevskaya didn't even know that much. But, then again, she was not the one in the jamb I had found myself in.

Which meant, in that great epiphany, that in the great order of things and for the price of an ephemeral thrill from Natalia Bourganevskaya, legendarily lovely or not, you were now in the midst of a “speech occasion” the likes of which you were not prepared to handle and for which you were now about to make a fool of yourself in front of about 400 people in such a stupendous way that it would be, as they say in professional circles, a “defining moment.” It was about to become, as they also say in professional circles, a “career limiting move.” So, yes, you were about to ruin your life in front of the whole world (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) and, to steal a line from Arlo Guthrie, THERE WASN'T NOTHIN' YOU COULD DO ABOUT IT.

I scanned the audience. No one looked armed, but of course one can never really be certain. I took a deep, calming breath. And I said, “Please welcome a man whose reputation speaks for itself, Mr. Almost Well Known Poet.” Well, I didn't actually refer to him as Mr. Almost Well Known Poet; I used his real name, as best I could pronounce it, that is-and it was not as hard to remember or to pronounce as “Bourganevskaya,” but then again my honored guest was not as legendarily lovely as Natalia Bourganevskaya either. So my efforts at getting his name right were commensurate with my perceived possibilities for reward, imagined as any such rewards may have been. The audience applauded gently. No one hooted or ee-hawed in a fit of uncontainable enthusiasm. That was it. I got my fanny immediately off the stage, exiting stage right, 3 x 5 index cards there for the janitor to read on his cigarette break.

At the post-event party hosted by the distinguished faculty member, the adorable red-headed lass did, in fact, use me to escape the advances of the boorish poet. She ran straight over to me with the words “Michael, you were wonderful!” and threw her arms around me in a clutching embrace. And with that expression of undying admiration she sent a chillingly pellucid message to the almost famous poet.

But I was not to be fooled. I had not been wonderful. And her clutching embrace would last only long enough to convince the boorish poet that his chances were nil, that I had done him in, and that beyond a doubt I had planned this humiliation of him all along. He'd keep a look out for me all right. He'd remember my name, to be sure. As the esteemed and invaluable Assistant Associate Editor of the Bilgewater Journal, as the erudite and respected Chief Epigrams Editor of the Farthouse Review, as the greatest poet ever to come out of central northwest South Dakota, he'd keep his lecherous, lupine eye out for any over-the-transom poem with my name on it and make certain my literary output would be “properly routed.”

Many life altering lessons sunk home that day. Each and every one was a veritable nugget of wisdom. Why, each was the kind of maxim Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard might have left us in his Almanac. Having learned such lessons the hard way, I tell you now that I reformed my evil ways. I took the lessons of that moment to heart and became a new man.

I now arrive three hours early at airports. I am never late for class. I am always prepared for committee meetings at the college, even if it is only the committee to select a floor pattern for the new carpet. I attend to every detail in life. I always have not only a Plan B but a Plan C, D, and E for every duty no matter how small.

And, most importantly (Life Lesson #2), I have learned not to fall prey too often to the wanton glances of little tarts like Natalia Bourganevskaya and her ilk, who, by the way, last I heard was selling cubic zirconium jewelry on the Shopping Channel and, as one might expect of a highly successful former ingénue, was making vastly more moolah than I now make hawking the sparkle of mere poetry, trying to convince the at times attentive students in my literature classes that understanding great poetry will take you further in life than good luck and a winning smile. But I'll admit: Some days it's a tough sell.

And at the end of every semester as registration for the coming term looms, I put in the usual plug for poetry and drama, for great literature, for the inherited wisdom of the ages. Then I throw in a heartfelt good word for the value of taking a course (or perhaps two) in public speaking. On the large screen behind me, I run a clip of a simpering Stan Laurel, fingers in his mouth and furrowed brows almost rolling back and forth across his forehead. “You never know,” I say, “when you just might be thrust into a 'speech occasion' in front of five or six hundred people. It could happen, you know.” And then I tell them about my Stan Laurel Moment.