Long before talking heads and hosts of newscasts proliferated the airwaves with multiple superfluous insertions in every sentence, or began a remark with “So,” educators promoted Shakespeare’s plea to “speak the speech trippingly on the tongue” through elocution classes. They heralded the ability to communicate in grammatically correct sentences devoid of hesitation with appropriate inflection, pronunciation, and knowledge of the topic as paramount to one’s success in life.
I was a third-grader at Concord School in Pittsburgh when my mother trotted me off to the King School of Oratory to cure my shyness and fear of speaking with adults. By the time she learned about the miracles its founder, Byron W. King, had accomplished, among them curing himself of a speech impediment, the nation’s most celebrated elocutionist had been dead many years, but his wife Inez, a renowned actress of the Chautauqua circuit, still trained actors, businessmen, lawyers, clergymen, and even children after public interest soared in child stars like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland.
Despite dutiful memorization of the dramatic readings Mrs. King assigned me, I remained painfully shy. Furthermore, I could not cultivate the deep, theatrical speaking voice she preferred. The first step toward that goal, she suggested, was to practice screaming often each day. The first time I tried it at home, Mother came running, believing I was injured.
My progress in public speaking was minimal by our move to Philadelphia and my entry to the seventh grade at Swarthmore High School, where social studies was taught by Nathan Bell. Each day, I entered his classroom trembling that he would call upon me to participate as a news reporter. Several times each week, Mr. Bell distributed a newspaper published by an educational organization devoted to enlightening teenagers about current national and international events. The format was that of a typical newspaper with columns covering a variety of topics, from serious military and political stories to humorous reports about clever animals or accomplishments by popular stars of stage, screen and radio. Mr. Bell called the serious articles “heavy” and the lighter ones “fluff.” He cautioned us to avoid the fluff and focus on the heavy stories because we would be graded for our understanding of the latter.
Once we had perused the newspaper and selected an article, he instructed us to stow it inside our desk to deter peeking. Then he would call on a student at random to explain the story of his or her choice and why it should interest us. His criteria for excellent reporting demanded extemporaneous delivery with expression, appropriate vocabulary, and clear understanding of the topic. To facilitate sharing, he directed us to move our desks into a circle. He always asked for comments on the presentation just given and how it might have been improved. Then he would move on to another student, stressing that the chosen article must be different from those already covered. Repeats were not permitted.
Terrified, my focus each day was to recall key points about the article I had selected and fervently pray that he would call on anyone but me before the bell sounded. Sometimes my mind went blank and I could not remember one fact. Not only did we have to report on the story in our own words, but we had to stand erect and address Mr. Bell and the others in the circle as if we actually knew what we were talking about. Unable to do this to his satisfaction without stammering, I received poor grades for “participation.” Still, I persevered.
The goal of our English teachers was to produce students who were masters of the spoken and written word, even if they did not hear ideal grammar at home. After drumming basic rules into our heads, Elizabeth McKee rewarded us the last few minutes of class by reading from her moving novel about her grandmother’s wait for her sweetheart’s return from the Civil War. Before exiting her classroom, every student who had made an error on a paper or during a discussion that day could expect to be halted, asked to recall the correct usage, and to use it properly in a sentence.
Hannah Kirk Mathews, who studied at Cambridge and became one of the world’s finest scholars of the Chaucerian dialect, taught only freshmen and seniors. Under her tutelage, we were voyagers across wondrous seas of words. We lapped up every poem, short story, play, and novel she recommended and performed at least two of Shakespeare’s plays per year, always yearning to evolve into adults who could transfer that knowledge to our own children or students.
A Quaker, Ms. Mathews began her career teaching at George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where one of her students was a young man so nourished by her wisdom and guidance that he devoted his life to celebrating mankind and our fragile earth through his novels. Just as she followed closely the lives and careers of all her students, she never lost touch with the young man destined to put “Hawaii,” “Chesapeake,” “Alaska,” and “South Pacific” on bookshelves.
Long after I had been teaching for many years, Ms. Mathews wrote, “My fondest memory is of my retirement party where the community came to give thanks and James Michener came to see me instead of attending a White House dinner.”
The strict rules of elocution that my classmates and I eventually mastered under these watchful teachers are shattered daily on television newscasts by reporters who insert “you know,” “like,” or “I mean” multiple times in each sentence. And let us not ignore those who blithely reverse subject and object as they chatter about what “her and me” or him and I” did.
Is proper speech destined for extinction?