by S.P. Bailey
Carol leaned back, fought the yawn rising in her throat, and inclined her head upward. Her eyes caught on one of the light fixtures suspended from the high chapel ceiling. An opaque white cylinder dotted by circular holes the size of silver dollars. A single word came to her: curler. The fixtures were exact replicas—magnified several times—of the curlers that adorned her head every Saturday night of her childhood.
Her eyes fell and scanned left. The wood clock without numbers or a second hand told her that about ten minutes remained in the meeting. Her best friend in the ward was speaking. Determined to say something kind to her friend about her talk, Carol had already crafted a compliment that would not compromise her integrity.
Her friend finished, and the closing hymn and benediction followed. As her friend descended from the stand, Carol touched her arm and spoke: “Thank you, Linda, for your testimony. You always inspire me.”
Two hours and eight minutes later, Carol sat on the other side of the desk at the center of her Bishop’s office. There was a long silence. Carol’s mouth started to form the word “yes,” but she couldn’t make the sound. Doing the opposite of opening, her jaw was a vice.
“This should be easy for you,” her Bishop said. “Right? I mean you are like a professional, right?” A copy of a painting of Jesus Christ in a red robe was mounted on the wall behind him and right. Over his left shoulder hung portraits of the First Presidency.
“I have never said no to a calling,” she said, looking at the floor. Silently she prayed: don’t ask me to do this.
“I appreciate that,” the Bishop said.
“Public Relations Officer is what they call me at work,” she answered his question. That title bothered her. It was dumbed-down, like the common name of the field of study printed on her diploma: communications. Rhetoric, she always wanted to say. I practice rhetoric. I am an orator. She knew how pretentious that would sound, and she held back. She knew the distinction would be lost on him anyway. Or that it would not help her if he did understand.
“Right,” the Bishop said. “Perfect.”
“But that has nothing to do with this. I can’t,” she stumbled. “Other people would,” she stopped and sighed. “I am not the right person for this, am I?” she pleaded.
“I believe you are,” he replied. “I thought,” he paused, smiling, speaking into his tie. “Well, I guess I don’t understand.”
“But ward public speaking specialist!” she cried in disbelief. “Is that even a real calling?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It is in this ward.”
“You know the people in this ward are my friends,” she said. “Don’t make me tell them what I think of their talks! Bishop, I am horrible at charity. For me, kindness usually means just shutting my mouth.”
“You need to get over it,” the Bishop coaxed her. “Time to place that gift on the altar, you know?”
He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “This is what I have in mind,” he said, suddenly excited. “I have scheduled the sacrament talks out some months in advance. I am going to ask every person on the schedule to take your class. I considered asking only certain people, but decided that might hurt some feelings.”
She nodded in agreement.
“The details are up to you,” he said. “But this is the general message: the Spirit grows with preparation and skill. It is not a matter of just getting up there and feeling strongly about something.” Rising quickly from his chair, he thanked her for accepting. He opened the sound-proof door to see her out.
Feeling heavy, certain she had just been asked to sacrifice precious friendships, Carol drove herself home from church.
* * *
Carol was clearing the table after dinner. Rich, her husband, was loading the dishwasher. She told him about the calling.
“Gee Carol,” Rich grinned. “Not many people get to live out their fantasies through their church callings.”
She threatened him playfully with a dirty gravy spoon. “Shut up,” she said.
“I see that your spoon is loaded,” he said. “Please have mercy on me. I have a wife and kids. I don’t talk pretty, but I do my best.”
“Rich,” she tried not to laugh. “Not funny. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Rich replied. “Keep it basic and light. Just give them Speechifying 101.”
“But can I do this half-way?” she asked. “You know I want to do this in a way. I can do this right. I just think it’s going to end badly. I hate aftermath.”
“Aftermath?” he cried. “Your class is going to become standard church curriculum. It’s going to get correlated and translated and disseminated throughout the world!”
“By the way, do I get to attend?” he asked. “I would hate to miss the carnage.”
“No. Absolutely not,” she grinned, tossing the gravy spoon in the sink. “I don’t need any discipline problems.”
* * *
Carol fretted for much of the week that preceded her first lesson. She read articles and prayed but failed to write anything down. Now it was Saturday morning, the day before. She locked herself in the laundry room with her laptop.
Just trying to warm up, Carol listed things not to do in a church talk. Her list grew rapidly. She was amused. Several minutes later, list still growing, she knew what she would do. Her list would make a good introduction to the class—something light to get people thinking about the peculiarities of Mormon rhetoric. A gentle assault on more than a few of her pet peeves.
Nine students attended Carol’s first class. After the opening prayer, she handed out copies of her list. It read:
o Start by recounting which member of the bishopric called to ask you to give your talk. Describe how you felt when you got that call—be sure to state or otherwise imply that you abhor public speaking.
o Confess that you are not well prepared. For example, joke that your talk should have been on procrastination because you only prepared it this morning.
o If you are the last speaker on the program, comment on the amount of time remaining in the meeting. If little time remains, thank the previous speakers. If plenty of time remains, thank the previous speakers, but do so sarcastically.
o Use these exact words: “I was asked to speak on [insert gospel topic]. Webster’s dictionary defines [insert gospel topic] as [insert definition].”
o Do not let stuff like “the scriptures” or “your testimony” overwhelm pleasant material like clichés from quote books, irrelevant jokes, or devotional doggerel.
o Read an article from a church magazine, preferably The Friend, word-for-word. When reading, do not look up or modulate your voice.
o Trick out your talk with the word “even.” Example: “I feel very strongly about this, even with every fiber of my being.”
o Break down and cry. Time spent apologizing for crying, drying your tears, and regaining your composure counts against your total required talk time.
o If you see that your talk is bombing or will bomb, discard it and free associate. This is appropriate as long as you declare that even though you spent hours preparing your talk, you now feel constrained to address other subjects.
o Quote great literature out of context. Introduce dialog spoken by literary characters by simply declaring: “Shakespeare (or Milton or whoever) said …” Bonus points for mistaking irony for earnest moralizing.
o Reveal embarrassing personal information about yourself or your family, particularly the gritty details of serious sins and marital conflicts.
o Use the words “in closing” as a transition about two thirds of the way through your talk. The words “in closing,” should not signal that you are almost finished.
o Go five minutes over. Ignore the fact that no adult in the congregation has cast eyes upon you for at least ten minutes, that the once soft roar from the children present is rising to a crescendo, and that the organist just sounded several of the low notes that she plays with her feet.
The class read through the list, occasionally laughing. Carol proceeded to teach the rest of her lesson; she felt that it went well.
* * *
Three weeks later, Gary Hansen, the scoutmaster, spoke in sacrament meeting. As he spoke, Carol imagined her list and mentally checked off one item after another. She was impressed; he left off only one, maybe two items.
Gary had already done better than five minutes past the allotted time. Still, he digressed: “By the way, I want to thank Sister Carol Lewis for her help in preparing my talk.”
Carol was amazed. He must be joking, she thought. Yet she could detect only sincerity in Brother Hansen’s face and voice. And she knew him: jolly, generous, patient, without guile.
“She gave away materials in her class,” Gary continued, “that I would have paid good money for at Deseret Book. So take her class if you get the chance.”
Carol’s face flushed red. She glanced around the chapel. Some faces smiled at her or gently nodded in polite amusement. Carol turned her face to the Bishop in an urgent gesture, trying to somehow tell him that she did not do this—not on purpose.
The bishop did not see her. He gazed over the heads of the congregation like he saw something on a distant horizon. This was maybe the sixth meeting he would attend to today, Carol told herself. And who here told him just this morning that they are addicted to oxycontin or pornography? Whose marriage is falling apart? Or maybe he is thinking about his own family.
She felt obligated to tell Brother Hansen that he misunderstood the list. But she thought doing that would only make things worse. She felt sick. She repeated to herself over and over a familiar litany, a tool fashioned for her ongoing self-perfection efforts: Just shut your mouth, Carol, shut it.