I took Latin when I was in school for three years, between 7th and 9th grade. I was drawn to the classes, not because of it being a gateway to other languages, but more because of its literary history. See, by this point, I was reading everything I could get my hands on, and usually my focus was on the classics, not what typical junior high kids were devouring. “No, thank you. You can keep your Stephen King, I’m re-reading Hemingway this week.”
Latin was a tie to great mythology, it was a connection to those random quotes in a novel that I had no idea what was being said. In a literary sense, it felt like the opportunity to dig around the base of a tree and see the root underneath.
The teacher of the classes was Mr. Black, and looking back over those three years with him I still can’t put my finger really on his personality. He could go up and down pretty quickly, did he like to teach or hate it? Did he even like us or hate us? Now I almost wonder if he was bipolar, and that could explain the oddness of the experience. (He would also show us I, Claudius in class, if you can believe it. He would run up with a big piece of paper to cover up the screen whenever the “naughty bits” would come on; of course, most of the time he didn’t get to the TV in time. Yes, he taught kids like me all about the history of Caligula.)
Mr. Black would have the students recite and speak Latin in class, and while I was basically average in reading Latin on the page, I couldn’t do it aloud. It was too much for my tongue. It is those moments that used to haunt me, standing up, hands sweaty, all of the eyes on me as I tried to recite a passage perfectly. The other students would sometimes hide their laughter, many times they didn’t. And there was Mr. Black in the front shaking his head, frowning, with almost a mocking smirk hiding behind his eyes.
Speech was never one of my strongest attributes. I can talk very fast, almost too fast, and I used to have a slur that could come up, especially when I was overly excited. My cousins would regularly tease me about it, and at school I wasn’t always anxious to raise my hand.
At one point as a kid, I can’t remember the year or grade, I met with a speech therapist once or twice about it. I think the big lesson I got out of those meetings was to take a breath and go a little slower.
Go a little slower…
That was never me. I was a fast reader, it’s understandable my tongue would go just as fast!
I remember one telling moment in 6th grade, we had a substitute replacement halfway through the year (I don’t remember why the old teacher left), and during recess me and one of the other kids were trying to show her how to use one of the computers.
Maybe it was because computers were still new, or because we kids had put the disc in wrong, but it was not working. I was running through all the options why there was a problem when she looked over at me (and I remember every moment of this visually from her expression to her hair cut) and said in a very condescending manner, “Boy, you are a fast talk, aren’t you? How about taking a breath?”
Take a breath…
I became a college radio DJ because my writing demanded it.
I grew up loving old radio dramas and British radio comedies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I wanted to write stuff like that, play in my listener’s imagination with universes at my fingertips! And when I heard my college was getting an on-campus radio station I met with one of the student organizers to talk about options.
I brought up the idea of creating a series of 20 minute short comedy stories that they could play whenever they want on other shows. The organizer didn’t like that as an option, she didn’t want to force anything on the other DJs, so the answer was no unless… Would I be interested in having a 2-hour slot?
So that is how I became a DJ for one year at my school and Monday night from 8 to 10 was mine.
The station could not be heard over the airwaves, only working through radios that were plugged into sockets at the college. So, being Monday night, I can’t imagine that many people heard my show. That was a time for football, sitcoms, and homework. Heck, sometimes the station was off when I showed up, and I had to turn everything on! I never got calls or requests. Wait… I did get one call. It was after Kurt Cobain died and I decided to play some Nirvana music for part of the night. Someone called in then asking me if I was suicidal. (It’s weird how clearly I remember that call.)
But, typically, I would just show up, play one of my comedy radio shows (which I pre-recorded with my friends in my basement using my uncle’s recording equipment), then fill up the rest of the time with music I liked. I didn’t talk that much, being still a little nervous about speaking.
When that year was up, I didn’t ask to take part again, and no one asked me why.
I never gave up on my love of radio comedy stories and had a few of my scripts honored in a national competition. This led to me getting a free ride to a week-long radio workshop and having one of my stories performed on a live show. This opportunity introduced me to the brains behind Mind’s Ear Audio Production, who went on to produce my 10-part radio comedy series The Dante Experience (I talk about the series and have links where you can listen to the entire thing on Soundcloud here). It is a very fun show, and I will from time to time listen to the series… but there is always one bit I have trouble listening to.
Joel Pierson, the director of The Dante Experience, invited me down to listen to a recording session. I was home from LA for the winter (I was studying for my MFA in writing at USC at that time), so I borrowed my parent’s car and headed down. I met the cast and then Joel pulled out a surprise for me- They were going to record one of my favorite scenes in the scripts and I had to play a role.
I’m sure Joel knew that if he brought that up to me earlier, I probably would have said no. It is a great comedy scene, Mephistopheles the devil decides to introduce his parents to his new “mortal” girlfriend. It’s all very over-the-top “sitcom” but with devils. I got cast as Mephistopheles’ dad and with some digital trickery, I became a demon.
The scene turned out fine, and no one has complained to me about it since the series went out. It went on to win a few national awards (seriously, you should listen to it via this page. One national reviewer compared it to Monty Python!), but for me, whenever I listen to that scene I wonder what it would have been like in the hands of a professional… or simply, someone not me.
I’m not exactly sure how I became the book reviewer for my local NPR station, WKAR, and their daily show Current State (you can hear my reviews via links here).
I know my conversations began with them over A Jane Austen Daydream (my new novel) and my hope to be interviewed on the station. Somehow those conversations grew over e-mail, and suddenly I had sent in some book review examples. And, before I knew it, I was sharing a coffee with the producer discussing my schedule for recording.
The first time I walked into the station it was an odd feeling. So much of my experience around speaking and radio told me that this was a bad idea, but I carried on, again thinking this is a good thing for my writing. And like with Latin, and the college station, and Dante, it all comes back to my books with me. My stories demanded this of me.
The first session went fine, but I was relieved when it was over, feeling a little like I had run a race.
For the second session I made the mistake of bringing in three reviews to read, not two. By the time, I began working my way through the third I was feeling like I was in Latin class again. I could feel the sweat on my brow, wondering almost if Mr. Black would once again walk through those doors with that shake of his head. The producer said I did fine, but I was unsure.
So before the next session, I rehearsed everyday the week leading up to it. And that third session changed it all for me. It was great! It took a lot less time and felt strangely natural, fun. And now, I look forward to those moments heading in; strangely, enjoying my voice on the radio and these moments when I get introduced.
It all feels oddly empowering, a full circle on something, but what I can’t say exactly. Whatever the case, it makes me smile. This was not something I was looking for, but it is all feels randomly redeeming.
Take a breath…
Oh, and one last thing…
Mr. Black was a lousy teacher.
If you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!
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