January 12, 2020
Sunday, 8:30 a.m.
Letter #478: Speech Impediment
Greetings! Yes, I’m back to writing regularly—lucky you, eh?—now that this past Friday marked the end of one long, grueling chapter of my educational saga. I’ve finally completed enough classes in the last year-and-a-half to earn at least four more AA degrees (I’m petitioning for a fifth) and a BA in Business Administration with a GPA of 3.8. To God be the glory! I’ve earned time off and more will be awarded soon. Friday, the prison threw a graduation party not unlike the one in January, 2016 for my AA in Ministry.
My mom and her best friend since Bible College, Aunt Terri, planned to be at the event, my dear friend Daniel would perform on electric guitar, and the prison invited Jim White, the man whose life was portrayed in the movie set in the tiny town where our prison is located, McFarland, USA. One inmate, who got a 4.0 GPA while getting his AA degree in two-and-a-half years (what took him so long?!?), 😉 was the valedictorian, and the warden asked me to give the closing speech.
You may know that I love to speak, and I have quite a bit of experience preaching (before and during prison) and addressing groups large and small. I even taught a class on Public Speaking for nearly a year. But I also like a challenge, and I love to make my mom laugh. So, I reached out to my brothers and asked them to submit to my mom any statement they would like me to say in my speech. All four wanted to participate, but I didn’t get Brian’s in time to include it. Michael told me he wanted me to quote the entire lyric to “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and David and Mark submitted surprise statements that my mom read to Daniel over the phone. Daniel wrote their statements onto separate 3×5 cards and slipped them into the mix of the other 3×5 cards I’d written the rest of my speech on. I didn’t look at them ahead of time. The rule I gave myself was that I had to say whatever they’d requested—with no explanation or excuse—in order to consider it a “win.” To do otherwise would constitute a loss.
Sitting in the visiting room with cap and gown on, several family members in attendance (and even my long-time friend, Dan, who drove several hours to be there), and a bunch of honored guests and prison big-wigs (one with an actual wig) started making me nervous. Me? Nervous? Crazy. I wasn’t used to this, this out-of-control feeling. I am normally a confident speaker, whether well-prepared or off-the-cuff, but this was a unique test. If Michael’s request was any indication, David and Mark’s entries could be brutal. Making matters worse was the solemnness of the occasion. Everyone was real serious, everything was real special. My speech couldn’t be serious, but it sure would be special.
The M.C. welcomed everyone, pointing out that we not only had officers and counselors and teachers and even the librarian present, we also had the Chief of Security, Assistant Warden, and the Head Warden in attendance. Plus, the CDCR Captain over a few prisons was there, and the Contract Beds Unit Warden—head of all inmates housed in private prisons—came from Sacramento.
The valedictorian gave a moving speech in which he mentioned how I overcame the difficulty of Daddy’s death as I completed my degrees. Looking at his brother, he said he hoped to make him proud someday, and I heard his brother—the only member of his family still supportive of him—say, “I am proud of you, Bro.” That really got me, as I thought how nice it would be to hear those same words someday.
The ceremony was nice, and my turn to speak came all-too-soon. I began by saying, “The warden said he never thought he’d be at this kind of event in prison … well, neither did I!” which got a good laugh. Then, “My mom taught me a nursery rhyme years ago that goes … ” and I quoted every bit of Michael’s request. I continued, “And, just like that lamb, I had someone whom I followed to school—my buddy, Ken. He pushed me to take way more classes than I was comfortable with, and it’s because of him that it took just one-and-a-half years to get four years of college completed.”
I said some other normal, inspirational stuff, then came to the card with Mark’s request on it. At the top of the card, Daniel had written the instruction: *Said with a Southern accent* and, without ever having seen it, I read the following out loud: “LAND! Man up an’ vanished like a fart in the wind.” Now, mind you, this turns out to be what the warden in Shawshank Redemption says, but it isn’t what I would choose to say. I couldn’t believe I’d just said that, and the hundred or so gathered were equally confused. I powered through it and went on.
I made a few other funny comments and inspirational ones before coming to David’s request. I flipped the 3×5 card and found that David chose a line I’d written as part of a children’s song for our conferences years ago. It was confusing years ago, and it was mortifying to see it written, but I said it without hesitation: “It’s the fruit, fruity, fruit, fruity, fruity, fruit, fruit of God’s love.” It was WAY more fruit than I wanted to express all at once in my speech, and the audience just sat in stunned, confused silence. I bailed out. “Yeah, thanks to my brother for phoning that one in,” I said, which oddly made me feel better, as if I’d somehow distanced myself from the words that looked as if I’d carefully curated them onto cue cards and said them with such intention. I began talking about how if it wasn’t for the fruit of God’s love, none of us could have accomplished the schooling we had, and several “Amens!” were voiced, but I knew I’d lost by revealing the fruit wasn’t my choice.
Afterward, one guys said, “Your speech was really great, though confusing at parts. You are obviously a very accomplished speaker.” Great. Even I was confused at parts. Then, my mom came up and hugged me, told me how much she loved the speech and how I’d woven in Michael’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” request and Mark and David’s requests. Then she opened a small slip of paper and held it out to me. “Brian wanted me to give this to you,” Mommy said. “I didn’t get it in time for you to include it in your speech, though.” Written on the paper was simply, “I’m proud of you. –Brian.” I dissolved into tears. Exactly what I’d hoped to someday hear from my brothers was stated right there … a sweet gift of grace from God and a reminder of how deeply I am loved by each of my family members. Our family just has odd ways of expressing it.