We didn't go to Pekin JUST to celebrate Cooper's birthday. We also went there because a friend of mine from Bradley organized a lovely surprise celebration lunch for a Pekin High speech coach who retired after FIFTY YEARS at the high school.
I had SO MUCH FUN at the lunch. There were alums from the 1970s-1990s, and I saw 2 of my former coaches, as well as a bunch of friends I haven't seen since high school. There were many speeches, including one from me. I didn't prepare anything at all until the morning of the lunch when I was in the shower and the perfect words came pouring out of me. I have always done my best practicing in the shower. I leapt out and wrapped myself in a towel and scribbled down everything I said on a legal pad and read it over a few times between the parade and the lunch and probably said about 62% of what I wrote because when you are giving a speech in front of a room of speechies, you DON'T use notes.
I was blown away by the other speakers of course and by their recollections of our coach who gave so much of himself to generations of students. He started crying as soon as he walked into the room and saw the assembled crowd. Big, ugly sobs that almost sounded like laughter at first. Then he went around and hugged each person after joyfully shouting their names-- and he knew us all. It was lovely. At the end of the day, he spoke, too, and sounded just like his old self with a booming laugh that another alum described as a sense memory. He said that he dreamed about his former students and hoped he could see them all someday to see what they had become, and then there we were. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. He said a bunch of wonderful stuff about how his job was to give kids confidence to believe in themselves and imagine a life different than the one they could see before them in tiny little Pekin, IL. To his credit, most of the people in the room were lawyers or really successful executives. And there was me, a fake doctor, and a REAL doctor, too. So, mission accomplished, Coach.
My speech bestie was there from DC, and I got to meet her husband and share memories and go to a long, leisurely breakfast the next day and swap stories about our lives as juggling moms. We haven't seen each other since high school (except for a brief meet up in DC over spring break), but we didn't miss a beat in the conversation.
I left Pekin delighted and grateful for speech. So many of the speakers at the lunch talked about how speech saved them from unhappy homes and showed them a path to success they didn't think they could find. I loved hearing their stories and knowing that an activity that was so transformative for me, introducing me to my voice and my husband and some of my best friends in the world and my area of lifelong study, was also vital to them. Such connection and kinship-- a whole room of dorky kindred spirits.
And then, yesterday morning, I woke up to a text string from college speech friends telling me that one of our teammates was dead.
She was a year younger than me, 38. We hadn't kept in touch, and she hadn't had an easy time since college, despite getting her MA and teaching at Northwestern for a time. She didn't have an easy time before college, either. Or during it. But damn was she funny.
All day long, I have read stories about her on our alumni Facebook group, and I have been thinking about those stories--about brilliance shadowed by tragedy--and about the joyful ones I heard on Saturday-- about brilliance subverting shadows. Maybe if speech could have found her sooner?
At the end of the day, we are only our stories, really, the ones we tell and the ones people will tell about us when we're gone.
I feel even more grateful to have made the trip to Pekin over the weekend to hear people paying tribute to a man who was in the room, there to appreciate our words and add his own. I keep thinking about my old friend who is gone and wondering what she would want to say, what she'd want us to say. You know?