Outta My Yard

by Elizabeth Peavey
by Elizabeth Peavey

Pomp and circumstance

I have to confess that I was heartened, and more than a little flattered, when I heard USM students and faculty were protesting budget cuts. I figured I would be missed at the university after teaching there for 20 years and then having my public-speaking class cut (potentially permanently) this past semester, but all that fuss over li’l ol’ me?

Not exactly. The real dustup was over USM President Theo Kalikow’s proposal to eliminate programs, faculty jobs and staff positions to cover an anticipated shortfall. People marched, chanted slogans and held sit-ins — a real proper demonstration. All that was missing was Jane Fonda and love beads. And it worked. The cuts were temporarily rescinded, and the Faculty Senate has till the end of May to come up with other ways to save money. But I am not hopeful anyone’s plans will include yours truly.

I can’t get over how much I miss the classroom. I got to boss people around and had a captive audience that was forced to listen to my jokes for two-and-a-half hours. And I loved the sundry mix of students each semester brought: the retired and active-duty troops, the male and female hockey players, the MBA candidates, the STRIVE U students, the middle-aged women, the surfer dudes and ski bums, the chemistry and criminal-law majors, the holy rollers, the “whatever” girls, the computer geeks, the ESL students, the single moms, the seventh-semester seniors, and my openly BDSM student, who enlightened her classmates about her lifestyle in her speeches. They were all thrown into one crazy, quaking punchbowl, and I got to swirl the ladle.

Despite these students’ outward differences, most had one thing in common: they faced my course with pure dread — at least at first. It was not uncommon for a student to confess after the first class that he or she needed public speaking to graduate but just couldn’t do it. Many of them had tried public speaking before but didn’t stick it out. I got pretty good at talking people off the ledge. I’m not saying they came skipping to class by the end of the course, but almost every one of them made it through.

For example, at the start of the Spring 2013 semester, a young woman approached me after our first class. She sported a bright turquoise headscarf and formed her words slowly, in a gorgeous French-African accent. Her name was Fatoumata Issifi Hidjo, and she had come to tell me I would not be seeing her the following week, that this class was not for her.

I had other ideas.

Flash forward one year and imagine my delight when I received an e-mail from this former A-student of mine (yes, she rocked the course) in February informing me that she wanted to apply to be the student commencement speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony at the Civic Center. Could I help her?

After two months and many e-mails back and forth, having retooled and fine-tuned the final speech she had given in my class, we had what I thought was a speech destined to bring down the house. We just needed a quick rehearsal. Fatoumata and I met in a study room in the Glickman Library. Through the windows behind her I could see students milling around and huddled in conferences, but the moment she opened her mouth and that room filled with her confident voice, the rest of the world fell away. That was the only rehearsal she needed. She was ready. I was ready. Although I’d never attended a USM graduation ceremony (including my own), I had the date cleared and my outfit picked out. Fatoumata and I were going to kick some serious commencement butt.

Days later she e-mailed to inform me she’d placed second. Only one student was chosen to speak, so she was out. Her biggest concern? She was sorry to disappoint me.

Well, there are a lot of things I can’t change, but there is one small thing I can do: I can give the world Fatoumata’s speech. With her permission, I present it to you here:

I will never forget the moment in 2010 when I was dropped off at my first dorm in the United States, 5,000 miles from my home. I had arrived early, and the campus seemed deserted. Yet no matter how scared or lonely I was at that moment, I had just one thought: “I made it.”

You see, when I graduated from high school back home in Niger — a country in western Africa — I had to stop my schooling because of my family’s financial situation, and a general lack of support for education not only in my family, but culturally as well. But then a wealthy American friend I had met through a volunteer organization I was working for offered to help me go back to school. I consulted with my father, but he didn’t like the idea. Being the first girl of my family, I was not supposed to get an education. I was supposed to get married, have children and become an obedient housewife. That would be my family’s pride, and what my father in particular wanted.

In my country, in many cases love is not required for a marriage to happen. Girls get married as early as 15 years old, or even younger. At an age like that, irreparable damage can happen that can impact the rest of a girl’s life. I saw marriages that had gone wrong and no one was there to give the young wife any kind of moral support. Girls could be sent back home like defective merchandise if they couldn’t have children, or if the husband thought she was not a good housekeeper. And while I also wanted to have a family, I didn’t want to have to sacrifice my health and my desires for a better future to do so.

But my father is a very strict traditionalist, who has two wives and eleven children. He would not listen to a little girl like me who thought getting an education would make her a better person and give her a better life. Neither of my parents had been to school, so there was not much I could explain about the importance of having an education. When I couldn’t get myself understood, and without being disrespectful, I made up my mind and decided to come to America for college anyway. Girls in my culture pack only for marriage; I broke the cycle and packed for education and future stability instead.

I knew very little about the U.S. when I transferred to USM in 2012. I was not sure what I had gotten myself into. I had very little English, and I didn’t think I could ever fit in this crazy place where people ate donkeys, and dogs. No wonder the USM mascot was a husky — everybody was always eating them! I felt bad for the poor mascot, not knowing when he or she would be next. But as my English got better, I learned that Dunkin Donuts has nothing to do with donkeys, and that hot dogs are not made of dog meat. What a relief!

When I first arrived, I was driven by fear of failure: Would I not fit in? Would my coursework be too much for me? Would I have to return home without realizing my dream? But when I was accepted in the USM honors’ program and invited to join the Golden Key International Honour Society, I was no longer driven by fear. Instead, I was driven by an expectation of success. I had a very good sense of being a Husky. I grew from a pack member to a pack leader, to the person standing here today, your commencement speaker.

A friend of mine once told me that I should be proud of myself, that this is America, where people take pride in their own success. But coming from a very restricted society I never knew how to be proud of myself.

Today I know the meaning of those words. I am proud of myself, just as each and every one of you should be proud of yourselves, and in your accomplishments. Not everyone who starts on this journey makes it to the finish line. But, my fellow graduates, you have shown yourselves to have the motivation, skills and perseverance necessary to get here. You’ve already shown that you can make it. I can make it. We have every right to be proud of our accomplishments.

And let’s hope someday my father will understand, forgive his little girl and take pride in her success.

I taught public speaking for as long as I did because I believe in the power of words, of testifying, of telling our stories and sharing them aloud. While nothing will ever replace my USM punchbowl, I will continue to serve this mission through my private speech-coaching and through programs at schools and organizations around the state.

And Fatoumata? She has her sights set on graduate school at Stanford. I believe she can make it. I believe I can make it, and that we both have reason to be proud.

Viva la revolution!


Want Elizabeth Peavey to speak or teach at your school? Need speech coaching? Want your car washed? Check out elizabethpeavey.com or contact her at info@elizabethpeavey.com.

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