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Observed: Students tackle greatest fear

Alex Kumar will compete for the county speech crown May 12.
Alex Kumar will compete for the county speech crown May 12.
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Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was dead-on with his bit about public speaking.

“According to most studies, people’s No. 1 fear is public speaking,” he said. “No. 2 is death.

“Now this means, to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”


My palms begin sweating just thinking about one of the only times I addressed a crowd from behind a podium. It was 16 years ago. I was a senior in high school and had won a citywide Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest in St. Louis.

As part of the “prize,” I was invited (read: dragged kicking and screaming) to read the essay at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast, which was attended by many of the city’s leaders and dignitaries. My father, stepmother and creative-writing teacher all came as support, but none of them agreed to read the essay for me.

As I stood there before the microphone, I saw the corners of my papers shaking in my grasp. I was instantly aware of just about everything about me: my hair, my feet, my clothes. Where do I put my hands? Why does it sound like my voice is coming from somewhere else other than my own mouth?

Then, all the public-speaking advice began echoing in my mind: Don’t look anyone in the eye. Make sure you don’t speak too quickly. Make sure you have inflection in your voice. Emphasize certain words. Pause.

Breathe …

Honestly, if I had known winning that essay contest involved public speaking, I probably wouldn’t have entered.

And that’s why, as a judge for Willis Elementary School’s Tropicana/4-H Public Speaking Contest last week, I was so impressed with the 22 fourth- and fifth-graders who stood before the most critical of audiences — their peers — and delivered speeches filled with knowledge, emotion, humor and passion. Each competitor commanded the podium and tackled topics as serious as homelessness, texting while driving and stereotyping and as personal as family vacations, immigrating to the United States and that special love for the family dog.

Although every speech was unique and special in its own way, like any competition, we could only crown one winner. This year, fifth-grader Alex Kumar and his speech, “Boys are just Different,” edged out his fellow Willis classmates. Filled with plenty of wit and humor and delivered with the skill of a professional orator, Alex’s speech emerged as Willis’ best.

Of course, Alex is no stranger to the Tropicana/4-H Speech Contest. Last year, as a fourth-grader, he won first place at the county level for his speech, “A Whole Different World,” about his family’s trip to China.

This year, Alex took inspiration from his own home, his speech a plea for understanding. It offered reasons why a boy’s room is always messy, questioned a mother’s insistence on a clean shirt every day and even presented a convincing argument for procrastination.

“I just realized boys are misunderstood, and I wanted to do something about that,” Alex says about his topic.
Now, Alex will defend his title at the county level May 12. And because he doesn’t suffer from glossophobia like me, I would not be surprised if he brings another title back to Lakewood Ranch.

“When I’m up there, I feel alive,” he says of public speaking.

‘Boys are Just Different’

“Alexander Chiu Kumar, stop your diddle-daddling right this minute and finish your homework!”

You know you’re in BIG trouble when your mom calls you by your FULL name. And “diddle-daddling” is my mom’s way of saying goofing around and wasting time. But I’m not wasting time. Can’t she see that I’m thinking of a new kind of molecule that can eat pollution and kill germs — something that will change our world forever?! Sometimes, I think moms just don’t get it — boys are just different!

I know all my friends who are boys feel the same way: Why do something today, when you can do it tomorrow? I know my dad lives by that philosophy when it comes to work around the house. He says, “If you wait, what needs fixing may no longer need fixing.”

In my case, maybe the teacher will change her mind and cancel the assignment. And even if she doesn’t, you’ll have another day to come up with new and better ideas! Why can’t moms just see that? Boys are just more patient.

But there is one thing that boys don’t EVER put off — and that’s eating dessert. Some people think boys are picky eaters, but I’m not picky ... as long as I get what I want! Just give me dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you won’t hear any complaints from me! But the regular meal is a different story. You see, usually boys are purists, like me. Once the chicken touches the veggies, it’s contaminated, and I can’t eat it! And any food that is green or mushy is the enemy — it’s totally toxic.

Another enemy for boys is time. Why does it seem like we never have enough time to do what we want to do but always have to make time for what we have to do? It seems like I had 10 more minutes just five seconds ago! Why do I have to eat dinner or clean my room right in the middle of something really important, like beating level 37 on Super Mario Galaxy or playing ping-pong?! And is it really the end of the world if my room isn’t clean right this minute? OK, sometimes I have to jump over a couple of toys and a pile of clothes here and there, but I know where everything is, most of the time. You know, it’s when my room gets “cleaned” while I’m at school, that’s when I can’t find anything!

And when I can’t find something, I just improvise and recycle. Like re-wearing my T-shirt from last Tuesday. Who cares if my orange striped shirt doesn’t match my green and blue plaid shorts?

“Alexander Chiu Kumar!”

I guess my mom does. She can’t seem to get over the two ketchup stains and the smell. OK, it’s a bit wrinkled, but I don’t smell anything! Why can’t moms understand ... boys are just more resourceful.

Moms, boys are really easy to understand if you can just learn to see things from our perspective. We know you love us, but boys are just different ... Or is it just me?
— Alex Kumar

As a defending Tropicana/4-H Speech Contest champion, Alex Kumar offers some tips on speech writing and public speaking.
1. Choosing a topic. “You have to think of a unique topic to write about,” he says.
2. Delivery. “You have to have a lot of energy when you’re up there,” he says. “And you have to emphasize the right words.”
3. Overcoming fear. “Don’t look at anyone right in the eyes,” he says. “Look at their eyebrows. That’s what I do.”
4. Losing your place. “You just have to go with it,” he says. “They (the people in the audience) don’t have your notes, so they don’t know if you mess up.”


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