How I wish George Garrett’s words “as soft and murmurous as wings” were describing my voice … to have my tone considered “dulcet” … to speak gently and sweetly…
Unfortunately, my voice is loud. There is nothing gentle or sweet about my voice. I boomed when I taught, even today thunder in anger, guffaw when I laugh. It is a fact of nature: my eyes are brown, my blood type is O, my voice is loud.
Perhaps my family position as oldest child and self-designated sibling leader contributed to the development of my distinct decibel level: to be bossy, I had to be loud.
As a fifth grader I donned a shawl, sat in a rocking chair, and recited “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to first graders seated around me – and to a gym full of audience members.
Several years later, however, one of my sisters pointed out the extent of my voice volume. During my high school graduation, I delivered one of the evening’s student speeches. I was understandably nervous but managed to complete my address.
Afterwards I received congratulations from several audience members – even some who were not relatives. My sense of pride increased, only to be deflated by my sister: “Don’t get the big head. Something was wrong with the microphone. Your speech was the only one we could hear!”
I recall a similar incident from my first day of teaching. Dorothy Sommers, my teacher when I left Graham but my colleague when I returned, complimented me on the lessons I had delivered that day. Assuming the open windows between her office and my classroom allowed my voice to carry, I nevertheless expressed surprise that she had heard me so clearly, to which she replied: “Shirley, we ALL heard you!”
I eventually came to consider the volume of my voice a teaching asset, learning to use it as part of my classroom management style. Except when occasional laryngitis quieted me, students could never use the excuse that they had not heard my lessons or assignments.
I tend to employ a special mode of speaking when I explain an idea or advance an opinion – even outside the classroom. Whenever my volume increased and I began enumerating a series of points, observant but defenseless nieces and nephews commented: “Aunt Shirley has her teacher voice in.”
However, my “teacher voice” served me well during the travel years when I taught spontaneous vocabulary lessons on the streets of assorted German cities. And often, as I led my students through the completion of their customs declarations on flights returning to the U.S., I also fielded questions from perfect strangers sitting within range of my “teacher voice.”
Certainly I am not the only person to use a loud voice when issuing group instructions in times of concern or crisis, but I may be one of the few for whom a bullhorn is rarely necessary.
Because of car trouble the morning of one of our exchange trips, I arrived uncharacteristically late at the Dayton airport. As I walked in, my students and their families were milling about while a voice on the loudspeaker urged me to report to the ticket counter.
After our belated check-in, it was time to hustle to the gate. My voice and I took over: “The students will walk directly behind me. Families and friends may follow, but the students must stay with me. We are going now!” In the wake of my announcement, the entire ticket area fell silent in a scene reminiscent of those old E.F. Hutton stock brokerage commercials: every reservationist, luggage handler, supervisor, and passenger stopped in mid-activity to watch me lead our parade to the gate.
I have also used my voice in anger. It took a high level of volume in two languages to lay down the law when a friendly soccer game between American and German exchange students threatened to disintegrate in dispute.
And it is true that I made sure my students knew which behavior I expected on a tour bus in Paris when neither they nor their German partners were listening to the bilingual guide. From the front of the bus but without benefit of microphone, I simply stated: “I had better not hear another natively-spoken English word until the end of this tour.” Problem solved.
Probably the most embarrassing but effective use of my voice occurred on an escalator at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I have no quote to share because my mind and tongue went into automatic meltdown. I remember only that my tirade lasted the entire length of the escalator ride and was loud enough to silence all fellow riders as well as several other people accidentally within earshot. Were that to happen today, airport security would undoubtedly handcuff me and close the terminal.
While teaching, I even gestured “loudly.” Years ago at the county fair, I was using the quiet version of my “teacher voice” to explain the livestock sale to my nephews, when one of Merlin Woodruff’s co-auctioneers warned me: “Lady, the next time you wave your arms, you’ll be taking an animal home with you!”
Inadvertently teaching German to students up and down the school hallway, nearly shutting down airports, unintentionally bidding on farm animals – such is my legacy. I will end this article the way people nowadays shout on their digital and mobile devices: MY VOICE IS LOUD.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.