Speaking Plainly, K.J. West

What you need to understand is how much pressure a teacher is under. Especially a younger teacher. I’d gained my position through an interview with three middle-aged teaching executives; women whose disinterest seemed to compound with each stare over their outdated glasses. So I exaggerated. I told them something to make them lean forward and stop writing their notes on me. I claimed to be a state runner-up in a prominent public speaking competition.

It was a safe bet. A winner of a state-wide competition could be found online, but the runner-up only featured in blurry photographs. I could have been any mousy-haired student stuffed into an ill-fitting school jacket in those pictures. I’d only ever got through a local final once, but I knew my stuff. So I promised them a champion. They’d offered me the position the next day.

So really, I had to do it. I needed a winner, and though I’d advertised the practices to the shuffling masses at assemblies throughout the summer, the only child who was left by winter was a nondescript senior student.

It was the student’s idea, to write her speech on cultural appropriation and how unfair it was. She had a passion for the subject and when she started arguing it, the flush rising up her olive skin was convincing. So we wrote it. Mostly her, of course, that’s the rules. But I did think of an engaging opening for her, and I’d given her some quotes and data to use, and suggested some anecdotes, and I had changed her ending because it wasn’t working. But it was her speech.

But we needed something more. I asked casually one day for a picture of her parents, wondering if we couldn’t find a more personal connection to the subject, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, they were just as uninteresting and mousy-haired as me. Her olive skin had to be a throwback to some distant ancestor.

Nevertheless, I convinced her to start using some personal pronouns in her speech. “You are insulting my ancestors,” she practiced, “my heritage, my people.” It wasn’t enough.

I found the answer next door, as it happens. I had known Simrit Kaur for years, and I often minded her kids in the holidays, so she was happy to help. Getting her to ditch her jeans and put on the worn sari from the drama department’s wardrobe took more convincing. But it was worth it.

I didn’t sit her in the front row, of course. I sat her right in front of the adjudicator, in the back. Simrit really acted the part, taping the whole speech on her phone and cheering loudly. We probably would have won anyway, but it certainly helped our credibility.

Unfortunately, when the adjudicator mentioned her mother later, the student realised what we’d done. Misconduct, they called it, when the executives called me in. I just don’t think they ever understood the pressure that I felt.


This author has decided to publish under the pseudonym K.J. West