I went to my second Toastmasters meeting tonight. It was the same club as last week, just my second time there.
During the first half of the meeting, one woman gave a speech about mentorship, which is something I’ve been reading a lot about in the Thomas Jefferson Education materials I’ve been into recently. This woman was sitting next to me, and when the break came I turned to her and smiled.
“You know, just last night I read an essay about mentoring,” I said, intending to initiate some level of conversation about the subject of mentors. She smiled at me briefly and then got up and walked across the room to speak with someone else.
This particular topic was one assigned by Toastmasters. The organization provides the speaking points and the slides, and the speaker needs to infuse it with her own style. So, perhaps she wasn’t really interested in the topic and so wasn’t really into having a conversation about it now that she’d gotten through her speech.
Or, said the little voice in the back of my mind, she thought I was weird and just wanted to get away from me.
The second half of the meeting is for Table Topics. These are the 1- to 2-minute mini-speeches that people give on the fly. You don’t know the topic until just before you go up to the front to speak. I did one last week that was enjoyable in a terrifying kind of way. I was sort of hoping to do one this week, but I figured that since the Topicmaster hadn’t spoken with me during the break, she wouldn’t be calling me up this week. I was a little disappointed, but I thought maybe it was for the better. I was feeling a little nervous about being at the meeting again tonight and thought maybe it would be better to lie low and enjoy the other viewpoints.
The topics were all about leadership, another subject about which I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I was enjoying listening to the different perspectives people had on the subject.
About the fifth topic in, the Topicmaster introduced a quote to the effect that, to be a good leader, attitude is more important than actions.
“CJ,” she said, looking at me, “Do you know someone who embodies this type of leadership? Would you like to come up and tell us about it?”
Up in the front of the room, I started talking before I realized how nervous I was.
“I don’t think I know any leaders who embody the idea that attitude is more important than actions, but I have been doing a lot of reading about leadership lately, and I’ve been thinking about a couple of things while listening to the other speakers tonight.”
I paused to catch my breath and take stock of what my hands were doing, as they seemed to be gesturing all on their own.
“I’m a homeschooler,” I announced. “I teach my children at home. As part of that process, I’ve been reading about Thomas Jefferson Education, which is also referred to as Leadership Education. There’s a series of books about the topic by Oliver DeMille and his wife Rachel DeMille that I’ve been reading. In one Oliver DeMille talks about something I found interesting. He points out that in 1764, the Founding Fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson…”
Here I paused to try and think of another Founder and realized that I couldn’t seem to take a breath. But there was a name in front of me, and I grabbed it (hoping I wouldn’t make another Jeffords/Jeffs mistake).
“…John Adams—I’m glad I didn’t blank on the names of every Founder,” I quipped as an aside. “In 1764, none of them was doing anything big. They were reading and studying and discussing. They didn’t know it, but they were preparing themselves during this period of time that Oliver DeMille referred to as The Gathering Storm. When it came time to put their lives and their fortunes on the line for a very important cause, they were ready. They had the education and the historical context and the vision necessary to make these difficult choices and to take action as leaders when the time came.”
I walked back to my seat, still shaking, but smiling. The Topicmaster got up to give the transition comments between me and the next speaker.
“Well,” she said, “here I thought Thomas Jefferson was just a president and now I learn he was so much more.”
My smile faded. I was absolutely perplexed. Had she listened when I’d spoken? Did I make some point I hadn’t meant to make? Had my voice been too shaky or too fast or too quiet to understand?
I tried to assuage my feelings of confusion and uncertainty by focusing on the feedback I would surely get during the evaluation period just five speakers away. I love feedback, and I knew it would put everything right.
But when the evaluation period came, I was to be left unsatisfied.
The evaluator was giving great feedback. He was enthusiastic with his praise, gentle with criticism, and specific with both. He got to the point in his notes where he must have written about my speech.
“And CJ,” he said, peering at his notes, “She gave a complete speech…” he trailed off looking at his notes for another moment. “And I can’t read what I wrote here, so on to the next person.” He crumpled up the page of notes, tossed it behind him on the floor, and moved on to the next page and the next person.
I was stricken.
In the end, I was the only one who received no feedback or even anything that felt like an acknowledgement that I’d spoken at all.
I drove home despondent and for the first time really, really missing Utah. Not that being in Utah would have protected me from feeling shut out in a social setting; there’s no protection against that. But in Utah I would at least have been able to drive home on familiar, wide, straight, numbered roads and come home to my own home rather than a hotel room, curl up on my own comfy couch with a book (or my blog) and know that tomorrow I would get together with my Wednesday homeschool group and chat and eat food and watch our kids play, and I would be rejuvenated.
I don’t know what all this Massachusetts Wednesday holds for me, but I know it doesn’t involve heart-to-heart conversations with adults who care about me.
I know it will get better. I know I will find a way to fit in. It’s just hard right now. I feel like I’m putting myself out there, experiencing the discomforts and taking the risks and I’m, so far, not getting much in return except for this increasing sense of loneliness and alienation. And isolation and doubt and fear that I’ll never find someone to sit with at the lunch table (metaphorically speaking).
I’m not giving up on Toastmasters. I like the structure of the organization. It appeals to my sense of order and my affinity for progressive improvement and having a course mapped out for me. I think it’s quite possible there’s still a way that I can get the practice I want in order to feel more comfortable and confident speaking in front of a group along with the feedback I crave to help me become more effective doing so. It just didn’t happen tonight.
I recognize that this is largely an organization of people hoping to climb the corporate ladder by building their communication skills and that a homeschooling, green smoothie-drinking, extended nursing, stay-at-home mom who’s devoted herself to reading the classics probably can’t expect to find close personal connections there. If I can get the feedback and experience from Toastmasters and the interpersonal and intellectual connections elsewhere, I think I’ll be okay.
I’ll just try a different club in the area and see if there’s a better fit in a different group.
Back to the grindstone, I guess.