If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll already know that a couple of weeks ago my son Tristan was named as one of the two valedictorians for his graduating class this year; and while this is a designation and honour that I couldn’t be any prouder of him for achieving, it was also one that left me a little stumped and wondering why he threw his hat in the ring in the first place.
Then, in yet another twist, he and his co-presenter were asked to give a brief presentation in front of a group of about 100 people as part of an alumni reunion, and were given only one afternoon to prepare their speech! Being no stranger to the podium, I had to wonder how my kid was going to handle the pressure of having such a nerve-wracking deadline dropped on him with virtually no notice, and how he’d pull the whole thing off standing (okay, sitting) beside someone he barely knows? Let’s face it: The mere mention of “Public Speaking” reduces 95% of the able-bodied population into stressed, scared and freaked out emotional messes; how’s it going to affect my “special needs” kid? As his dad, I felt I had real reason to be concerned about this, and here’s why:
Having Muscular Dystrophy, being in a wheelchair, and all the staring and being ignored by people that comes along with these two things has made Tristan a very shy young man; a young man who, when at school, would rather keep to himself than take a chance by reaching out for attention from his fellow students. Socializing at school has been hard for T: Since he can’t hold a phone, he’s not part of the legion of kids who text message each other every few minutes. Since he can’t play any sports, he has never been able to enjoy the teamwork and camaraderie that being part of a team provides; and since he needs physical help with just about everything, he’s not been involved in any after-school clubs, because honestly; who is going to help him participate in any task or activity that he might want to try?
And it’s because of all of these things, Tristan spends very little – if any – out of class time around students, instead preferring the company of adults. At school his exchanges are primarily with care-aids, teachers and any other assorted faculty members he encounters on any given day, and when he’s not in class, Tristan is either in the library looking up current events, geographical facts or movie trivia (probably from the film we watched last night) on the computer, or discussing these sorts of things with the aforementioned adults – usually debating a point of view, or defending his position on any number of hot topics.
And it’s because T doesn’t have much regular contact with (a) students or (b) strangers, when I heard he’s inquired about being the valediction I panicked; I figured such a task would suddenly push him into a “nervous” place and totally freak him out; and now, with this last minute speech request he’d been asked to prepare with (a) a student, to be to be presented to (b) a bunch of strangers, I was sure it would all coming together and emotionally overwhelm him and push him over the edge – I was sure this had all created “A Perfect Storm” of a public speaking disaster!
Loving my son the way I do, plus being keenly aware of his insecurities, I felt I had to try and find a way to soften the blow – or at the very least, do what ever I could to make the situation the least painful / less embarrassing as possible. I remembered back to my mid twenties, and my own first public speaking engagement – an event that – due to poor preparation and nerves – turned out to be downright brutal in every way, and which left me a shell-shocked and shattered mess. I DID NOT want my sensitive, sweet, frail, insecure boy to go through any of these terrible emotions, so on Thursday I offered to help him write his speech. “No thanks” he replied; “I met with Brianna today for an hour and we did it already”. “Okay, no problem then” I said; however all I could think was “Oh shit – This kid just doesn’t get it”, and my own fear an anxiety continued to mount.
At 4:30 p.m. on Friday we arrived at the school auditorium where Tristan had agreed to meet Brianna. He was dressed very smartly in a shirt and tie, looking very much like a young man and not at all like your average “T-shirt-wearing-Ipod-listening-hat-on-backwards” kids who lurk in packs in the hallways or hang around the basketball courts after school. He saw Brianna and confidently said “Why don’t we go inside and find out where we are are supposed to be on the stage?”, which she agreed was a good idea, and off we all went to do jus that; and I say “we all”, because I wasn’t about to throw my naive kid to the lions without at least trying once more to give him the benefit of my tried and true public speaking wisdom.
“Do you guys want to rehearse your speech one more time just to make sure you are comfortable with it?” I suggested, in a feeble attempt to offer some final advice. Brianna threw me a look like I had two heads, and Tristan said “No, I think we are good, Thank you”, and calmly took his spot on the stage. Brianna helped out by putting the speech on a stand and positioning it so he could easily see it, and then took a seat next to him. With nothing left to do, I said, “Okay then, I’m going to take a seat up front – Good luck you guys” and off I went to sit down, as the auditorium began filling with Parkland School alumni. I couldn’t hear them from my seat, but noticed these two kids barely spoke to each other; but when they did, it seemed to be in clear, crisp sentences that looked like they were passing and receiving instructions.
At that moment, the current principle stepped up to the mic, and welcomed back the class of 1974 and was met with thunderous applause. I began nervously sweating, and was chanting prayers of mercy under my breath something about “Please, please, please don’t be too hard on these kids” believing they would, in approximately 20 minutes, probably find themselves nervously stumbling and mumbling their way through an ill-prepared speech. I held my breath through each of the next 3 speakers, until the M.C. finally announced it. “And now we are going to hear a message from the two current Valedictorians, Brianna Clooney and Tristan Knapp-Fisher”… and what I saw – and heard – next, was incredible; and I can honestly say, it blew me away.
Brianna and Tristan read their speech, switching back and forth without missing a beat. Their content was thoughtful, inspiring and relevant to the audience of 58 year olds who’d come back 40 years later to catch up on old times, and see what had become of both their friends and their high school. Both these young people spoke with precision and a sense of confidence, looking up and acknowledging their crowd at the end of each sentence. The next thing I heard from them was “Thank you and enjoy your 40 year reunion”, followed by more applause; and with that, they exited the stage.
I was stunned. Okay, I was actually a little embarrassed for acting like an obnoxious stage mom, but I was also stunned. I’d spent all this time worried about my kid’s ability to speak in front of a bunch of strangers, but had quickly learned in a few short minutes that it wasn’t MY kid up there – it was the fine young man that my kid had matured into and become! And despite having lack of student friends at the school, he was (is) a young man extremely confident in his knowledge of his topic, his message about that topic, and how he presented it to the crowd… he was a pro. In that moment I realized by spending his days studying topics that interested him, then discussing and debating those topics with adults had given Tristan a maturity well beyond his years. Oh sure, I’d seen it at home and in our own discussions, but not so much in public, and had no clue he had the guts and confidence to go on stage and present in front of total strangers. I was – and continue to be – amazed by this young man’s confident manner and demeanour.
Once outside I told him how incredible he did, and how proud I was of him. “Thank you” was his calm reply. “Where you nervous?” I asked” “No” he replied. “Well, you are amazing, and I want you to know that out of all the people in the world, only a few are as natural and confident on a stage like that – way to go, I am so, so proud of you”. “Thank you” he campy said once again, and we headed to the van to go home. As for me, I was still in shock.
In three weeks time my wheelchair bound disabled son finishes up and leaves high school to begin a life of adulthood in the real world – a scary time for anyone, both youth and parent. But after what I witnessed that day, 90% of my worries about this transition disappeared, and in just three short minutes. Tristan is no longer just “a kid”; he is a well prepared, polite, professional, confident young man who is both interesting AND interested. He’s worked hard, pushed through life’s challenges and met them on his own terms, ultimately resulting in him becoming a person of who brings great value to anyone who knows him as a friend, employee, son or colleague. His years spent debating and discussing current events and hot topics with adults has developed an outlook and maturity that is rare to find in most 25 year olds, let alone 18 year olds.
Tristan, – my son – has grown up to become a truly a remarkable human being on so many levels; and I’m proud to say that while I’ve always LOVED my boy, I can also honestly say that I really, really like him as a person, and also respect him. Most of all, I am very proud to call him my friend. And the final thing I want to say on this topic is this: “Way to go T – I’m so thrilled I get to share your gene pool – thanks for being so awesome! I love you!”
And with that, we move into the next phase of our adventure together.