I don’t remember much about Wilma McJunkin, my fifth-grade teach at Eisenhower Elementary. But I do know is that she changed my life with one simple decision.
Fifty years ago this month, Mrs. McJunkin volunteered her class to perform a radio play that would be recorded for broadcast on our local station, WDAD. It was a play about America’s founding fathers — a story laced with all sorts of patriotic themes, like most grade-school lessons of the era.
The lead role was George Washington.
When I heard the casting call, I immediately thought: “I’m gonna get the lead in that play.” This meant I had to nail the audition with NO advance review of the script. Given that I’m not and never have been a competitive person, I’m not sure where I got my focus that day. But I nailed it, and the role was mine. I performed well in the taping and still recall gathering in front of the Sylvania console hi-fi to listen to it with my family one Sunday night in May.
I remembered this story yesterday as I sat down to record voice tracks for a slide deck — part of an online course I’m creating. “Let’s nail it, I thought.” On 16 of the 17 tracks, I required only one take. (I flubbed slide #12 thanks to a handful typos in the script. Heh. I never did have an instructor who could teach me proofreading.)
Winning that role in a radio play in 1964 was a turning point in my life. It convinced me I had a talent — maybe even a gift — for presentation. It was important, as I was a klutzy kid with no athletic skill, and while I was an A student, I wasn’t the smartest kid in the room, by far. But it was my turn to shine. After that audition, I never hesitated to step in front of group, be it in a classroom, on stage, or at a client meeting. In fact, I love it.
From that day, I began to polish my oratory. I learned to speak, to tell a joke, to sing a song. But most important, I found a way to connect to other people. As my dad would later remark, after hearing me speak a few times, “That Bill’s a pretty good bullshitter.” He meant it as a compliment, and I took it that way.
It’s cliche to say this, but sometimes its the little things we do that change people’s lives. Mrs. McJunkin took on extra duty in that spring of 1964. She didn’t get a bonus for doing it, and I’m sure she had no idea it would have such impact on one person a half century later.
After my radio debut, 21 years would pass before my first opportunity in a classroom — as in adjunct instructor at the University of Buffalo. Every day since then, I’ve been on the lookout for those little opportunities that just might change one student’s life.
I hope, if I keep at it, students will someday remember that one moment that I helped create. So, thank you, Ms. McJunkin. You changed my life.