I learned about this event from a picture which was in yesterday’s Dayton Daily News of the Dayton Library’s children’s librarian sitting locked in a cell-like cage, surrounded by books which have been questioned over the years and subjected to challenges that they should be banned. Books like Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, and Catcher in the Rye, as well as a number of much racier tomes.
This all got me to thinking about a Speech class which I took in college. To fully appreciate this, you need to keep in mind that I attended a very small (about 800 students at the time) Midwestern college sponsored by the Mennonite Church. Mennonites, as you may know, are often referred to as “Mennonots” by their own younger members. We did have an occasional school dance but drinking and smoking were very verboten on campus. Those two things attracted me to the school in the first place. My alma mater also had an interesting tradition of never having a prof or other monitor present in the room when you took a test. Instead, at the end of the test, you wrote out and signed an Honor Code stating that you did not give or receive assistance on the test. That was pretty neat. Someday I will write about the time which, very regrettably, I kind of sort of (okay, definitely) violated that code.
Anyway, I think it was probably my Sophomore or Junior year that I took this particular Speech class. I do not recall the name of it. It was a very small class – maybe just six or so of us in it and most were upper classmen. It was taught by Professor Dickey. And, no, I am not practicing Freedom of Speech by making up that name for him. It was his real name. A couple of interesting things about Prof Dickey. First of all, his wife had been my kindergarten teacher. That is odd by itself. Her as my first teacher and him as one of my last “formal” teachers. Next, he was a Presbyterian minister. Finally, he was a fairly tall man of average build. He was very much American but he liked to think of himself as a Brit. He often tooled around campus in a very small MG with the convertible top down, wearing a newsboy cap. (There’s another word for those caps I think … I have a nice suede one … but I can’t think what it is.) He looked like he should have a pipe in his mouth but, of course, there was that no smoking policy on campus.
Professor Dickey was rather quiet and reserved and never gave much feedback to his students. You would often go an entire class with him with very little idea of how you were doing. However, to soften him a bit, I must say that he had eyes that twinkled, and a heart of gold … I think.
One of our assignments during Speech that term was to prepare a speech on a controversial subject and deliver it to our classmates. Now, you must also know that I considered myself to be a bit “hip” and “cool” at the time. I was a Communications major but I often thought of that as being a Journalism major since it was the closest thing we had to Journalism. I did a couple of independent studies in Fiction Writing during college and one on the Theatre of the Absurd. I often went off campus for various things. I had a job writing for the local newspaper. I got around to interview various people and even attend press conferences with Phyllis Diller and Hugh Downs. While my college very much encouraged all students to live on campus, I had friends who lived off campus. I often wore my hair in a sort of messed-up style, I usually wore funky glasses, and I wore vests a lot. I often went off campus and studied at a local coffee shop. (This was the mid 80’s, long before coffee houses in this part of the country, mind you.) Okay, in case you don’t have the picture yet, I will spell it out for you. I kind of sort of (okay, definitely) thought that I was better than most of the other students on campus. I am not proud of that now but, at the time, it was a fact.
So, when invited to prepare a speech on a controversial subject, I felt that I had to shake things up a bit. I really don’t recall what anyone else spoke about. That probably is because I thought I was better than them. It seems like their topics were rather innocuous. But, as for me, well, here I was thinking I was better than everyone else and a bit too cosmopolitan for this sleepy little college. I also fancied myself a writer and a journalist. So, I chose to speak on some subject loosely related, as best I can recall, to censorship and book banning.
I started my speech by reading a particularly raw page or two from a short story that, if I recall correctly, I had found in the college library. Now, that said, I must explain my relationship with the college library a bit. Those of you who know me will probably not be surprised by this. When I was researching something or writing a paper, I would go to the library to check out books on the subject. Whereas most folks might check out two or three or maybe four or five, I would check out 15 or 20, and I’d have the college sending away to borrow books from other colleges. And then I’d have these books spread all over my dorm room, usually not really cracking them until just a few days before the paper was due. Our college didn’t have the fanciest of systems for checking out books. You actually would end up writing your name on a card which, when you returned the book, would be placed back in a pocket in the book. I took great pleasure in the possibility that my name was written in more books in the library than anyone else’s. I thought it was cool that someday someone in their research would keep stumbling across my name as someone who checked out the same books. I hope and assume that that whole card thing is gone now, replaced by something a bit more modern in library technology.
I was also bad about returning books on time. Fortunately, I had a good friend who was a student librarian and, whenever she saw that I had a book overdue, she would just automatically renew it for me, reminding me near the end of the school year, that I had to return something like 750 books before I went home for the summer.
Back to Speech class … so I opened my speech with a particularly graphic and racey reading from some short story. I do not recall what it was but I can assure you that I would not want it sitting around on my bookshelf today. It was really really filthy though it was taken from a “serious” short story by a respected author. It included words and phrases that would make a pirate blush and his parrot faint (or vice versa). After the speech, several of my classmates asked me “Did you really say what I thought you said?” After I confirmed their suspicion, they laughed nervously, concerned I believe for how the Presbyterian minister was going to grade me on all of this.
Professor Dickey videotaped our speeches, claiming he’d play them back for us and give us feedback. Funny thing, he never played my speech back for me, nor gave me any feedback at all. I recall looking back at him during my Speech, though, and thinking that he looked a bit like Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. (Which, by the way, was recently recovered by the Oslo museaum from which it was stolen a couple of years ago.)
This was one of about three times during college when, for a few minutes, I shook up at least a few members of our sleepy campus. Today, I regret doing what I did. I think I could have made my point and not have had to read words which make me wince now to think that I said them at all, much less in front of a class. I guess that is what freedom of speech and freedom from censorship is all about but, still, I think that I could have made my point in a much better way, a way which hopefully would not have threatened shortening my dear professor’s life … or my time as a college student.