Failed English final, became professional writer
Blog 3 of 8: School expulsion, failing grade ~ Why I chose the Harlem Renaissance for my Toastmasters speech
As a member and the (former) Vice President of Education of Unity Toastmasters (a community club in Toastmasters International), I chose one of eleven Pathways — “Presentations Mastery” — as a public speaking goal. This is the blog series of eight posts I wrote in one month to complete Level 4.*
An Upwork client asked me recently who was my biggest influencer. I didn’t miss a beat before I responded that Harriet Tubman and Langston Hughes will always be my two biggest influencers.
Anyone who knows me well remembers the 24 x 36 poster of Langston Hughes in the living room of my second apartment. As soon as you walked in, he greeted you from the door angle. If I could jushe any assignment in school, I’d include Harlem Renaissance writers.
Fighting for representation in the literary canon
But when I was pondering on a topic to discuss for the 2018 International Speaking Competition of Toastmasters, I wasn’t quite sure if others would want to hear why I love the Harlem Renaissance so much. The short story version is the Harlem Renaissance was the first topic I wrote about professionally and was published in a magazine (Citizens in America).
The longer version involved me being on academic probation (with a 3.2 GPA) — with the threat of expulsion — from my first undergraduate university, Northern Michigan University. While NMU had a questionable excuse for trying to expel me, the true reason was that I’d ruffled quite a few feathers in the English department. I also refused to back down from creating a diverse literary canon in an American Literature III course.
Choosing an edgier Toastmasters speech
Initially I took the safe route and made my competition speech (and my final speech to receive the Competent Communicator certificate) about innovation and ideas. I’d just finished an amazing book by Sam Harrison entitled “Idea Spotting: How to Find Your Next Great Idea.”
But by the time I finished my speech, and realized I would advance to the next round (area competition), I just wasn’t satisfied. This topic did not speak to me in the same way as Speech 7* entitled: “Harlem Renaissance: Why I’m Proud to Have Failed My English Final.”
I asked my area director could I give a different speech during the area competition, and she OK’d it. I gave that speech and advanced to the division round. And while I did not place in first, second or third place in that round, I still couldn’t have been happier.
Why I’m proud of my 2018 International Speaking Competition speech
In addition to telling the story of why I put my degree on the line to go up against an entire English department; almost got expelled from school; and received a big, red “F” on my final in an unmarked envelope (knocking one grade down from an A+ to a C+) , it was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had in higher education. I should have framed the “F,” but instead I laughed at the unapologetic racism from that professor.
What mattered most is I stayed true to myself at that school. I used that momentum to let three Toastmasters crowds know why it is important to stand your ground, even when it may not be popular. Sometimes it may lead to more success than you ever imagined.
I’d already been accepted into another university (Lincoln University) and knew I had absolutely no desire to ever step foot in Marquette, Michigan or on Northern Michigan University’s campus again. I gushed with pride stepping foot into Jefferson City, Missouri and seeing Langston Hughes Memorial Library.
The minute I stepped on my HBCU** campus, it felt like home. I was following in the footsteps of my father, who also graduated from an HBCU (Kentucky State University). I was following in the footsteps of my grandfather, a St. Louis native, who took courses at Lincoln University before being drafted into the army. And I was following in the footsteps of all of those writers I grew to love, who fought to have a right to speak and write what others (including higher education universities) tried to dismiss and discredit.
Interestingly, taking courses at a private, Catholic grad school (DePaul University) pushed me to represent my influencers just as hard as LU. The conglomeration of lessons learned at LU and DePaul helped make me into the writer and public speaker that I am now.
I am excited about our upcoming local 2019 International Speaking Competition at Unity Toastmasters, which will be held on Sat., Feb. 23. I want to know what is on the minds of our members. Will they give motivational speeches like first-place winner Ramona J. Smith, heart-felt personal stories like Zifang “Sherrie” Su or thoughtful stories like Anita Fain Taylor?
Whatever story they choose to tell, I just hope it is a story they’ll be proud to share long after the competition completes.
* Speech 7 in the Competent Communicator manual focuses on “Researching Your Topic.”
** Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Additional posts from Shamontiel’s eight-part blog series:
This post was originally published on January 30, 2019 on Chicago Now’s “Message from Montie” blog.