AWAI Writing Challenge Winning Entry:
A Speaker Who Motivated Me
She was dowdy, shriveled, and spoke for less than twenty minutes in a harsh voice, but she impacted my life forever.
My friends and I couldn’t believe it when our headmistress introduced the speaker and she limped from behind the stage curtains to the podium – she couldn’t even make it up the short flight of stairs onto the stage! We stifled our giggles as she started to speak, her voice sounding just like that of a magpie defending her nest, and we put on our attentive expressions while our thoughts wandered to more interesting matters, but within seconds every girl in the room was spell-bound.
I know that the stories she told were dramatic – she had been a field nurse during the Second World War and she told her own story, and those of people she had known – but it wasn’t those that held our attention. It was the understanding, the compassion, and the wisdom that she communicated. She knew that we were stifling our giggles as she prepared to speak, wondering what an old crone like her could have to say to 200 girls whose ages ranged from 12-18, and she spoke out of that knowledge and pricked our schoolgirl souls.
She had seen a lot through the years, from the horrors of war-wounds, the misery of devastated towns and lives, of people whose families had been torn apart, and who had endured unimaginable horrors, to the difficulties of settling back into civilian life, of migrating to Australia, and raising a family – but through all her stories there were the common themes of courage, adaptability, and perseverance, but above all the theme of choice.
She was a firm believer in God, but she acknowledged freely that not everyone whose stories shared had faith to lean on – but the successful people, the resilient people, knew that although they could not choose their experiences, they could choose their response to them.
Her stories ranged from the mortally wounded who chose to spend their last, painful moments dictating messages of love and hope, to the maimed who chose to dedicate the remainder of their lives and bodies building a better world, to those who were imprisoned, tortured, starved, yet who chose to be gracious and reject bitterness in the face of everything.
She also told stories of those who were truly maimed. The ones who used their terrible experiences as an excuse to abuse those weaker than them, and who chose to feel helpless and wallow in self-pity.
At the end of her speech, no one giggled. No one laughed as she descended the stairs slowly, leaning heavily on her cane and the banister, we stood in silence and then, as she reached the main floor broke out in thunderous applause. I doubt if there was a girl in the room who did not feel, as I did, that we always have a choice – not about what we face, but about how we face it.
I have carried that knowledge with me ever since, and whenever it seems that there is only one possible way to react to crisis, hardship, sadness, or prosperity I am reminded that there is always a choice that no one except myself can deprive me of.
How has it changed my life? It has kept me calm in emergencies, given me courage to keep going when life looked grim, helped me to laugh at myself when I was being over-dramatic, but mostly it has inspired me to look for ‘the other way’, the choice that may not change circumstances, but will change me.
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