by Steve Mazeau

While we like to describe handbell workshops as “skill building”, I feel the real culprit, hiding in the shadows, is a lack of self-confidence. I see this in people who sit in the pews and say how nice the bells sound, and they want to try it, but their lack of self-confidence holds them back. I see this in ringers who are actually pretty good, but seem to lack the self-confidence to try something new. I also see this in directors who are comfortable leading their groups for many years in their “home” church, but then lack the self-confidence to join HMA because they feel that they won’t measure up to the expectations of either their ringers or other directors they meet in a community setting. In a similar way, self-confidence is also a critical element in the art of public speaking.

My wife and I have been Home Arts judges at the Middlesex County / New Haven County 4-H Fair since about 2008. For anyone not familiar with 4-H, it’s a youth development program coordinated by the Cooperative Extension Service and in our state, by the University of Connecticut. This particular fair is the longest running 4-H Fair in the United States and they’ve been doing it for almost 100 years. We’ve judged things like photography, cookies, arts and crafts, posters, etc. In the last few years I’ve also branched out into judging public speaking and the talent show.

In 2019, there was only one young woman, probably about 18 years old, willing to get up and try the public speaking contest. Sometimes, teenagers tend to be very self-conscience and getting up in front of an audience takes a lot out of them. I was the only judge for public speaking and another guy named Matt was with me judging the talent show. I think our contestant’s name was Cassie, and she got up and began telling about her experiences with 4-H. She had started in New Jersey with rabbits and took her rabbits to the 4-H Fair in New Jersey. Then her family made the move to Connecticut and she got involved with the horse program. It didn’t sound like she had any horses, but was more involved with the academic side of things, competing in the Hippology contest at UConn.

At this point in her speech, she broke down, started crying and said that she couldn’t do any more. She ran off the stage and there was a lot of crying and hugging in the front rows of benches where her friends and family were sitting. I just held my own at the judges table, waiting to see how things were going to work out.

Then something extraordinary happened which I will never forget as long as I live. A young girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, took Cassie by the hand and actually towed her back up to the stage. I don’t know if this was a younger sister or one of her fellow club members, but there they were; back up on the small stage, the younger girl hand in hand with Cassie, but not saying a word. She was just looking up at Cassie, eyeball to eyeball, with a big smile on her face. Then Cassie said, “I’m going to start over.”

She worked her way through the New Jersey bit and the move to Connecticut and Hippology again. As she was up there she gradually became more relaxed. Instead of being a bit stiff, as she had been at first, her eye contact with the audience, the use of her hands and body language, and the inflection in her voice all improved. She finished her speech with a powerful closing statement by saying that even though she was aging out of 4-H, she was going to continue to be a life-long learner.

Okay; now as the judge, how am I supposed to score this? On one hand, I’m supposed to be supportive and encouraging and focus on the things she did well and suggest where there’s room for improvement. On the other hand, beside the fact that she broke down and ran off the stage, there were also some organizational problems with the construction of the speech. If she had been a younger kid, I might score it to make sure they get a blue ribbon and write “great job” on the score sheet, but this is a young adult. Demonstrating that type of charity might be seen as condescending and could even do more harm than good. So I decided to just score it straight, but as if her breakdown never happened. She ended up with an 89 out of a possible 100 points, which got her a red Danish (second place) ribbon.

Looking back, the one thing I might have done differently was to recognize the young girl who stood with Cassie, up on the stage, holding her hand for the duration of the speech. I was especially impressed with the way she was “living” the 4-H Pledge; “ I pledge my head to clearer thinking; My heart to greater loyalty; My hands to larger service; and my health to better living …” In a sense, she was delivering a very powerful message without saying a word. That was what made it so unforgettable.

I can’t change the world. But maybe if I remember that silent, inspirational message of a 9 year old 4-H kid, I can change a small part of it. Because once we build self-confidence, the skills needed, either for bell choir, public speaking or anything else, will just naturally follow with practice.