“Youth Speaker,” New Era, July 1978, 15
“Breathe deeply and exhale slowly,” his mother had said on their way to church. That’s what he did now. Then he breathed in again and tried letting the air out in short spurts.
“Why am I so scared? I’m not. I can’t be. I’ve got to get it together.”
He fingered his Book of Mormon and then pulled out the worn paper. He unfolded it carefully because the creases looked ready to tear.
“Brothers and Sisters, I’m happy to have this opportunity to speak” wasn’t a very original way to begin. He folded the talk, stuck it in his pocket, then took it out of his pocket and put it back into the front of his Book of Mormon. What was that joke about seeing a Nephite? Maybe he should begin with that instead.
“Brothers and Sisters, have you ever seen a Nephite? Well, if you could see behind the pulpit, you’d really see a good one. My knees are really trying to knock each other down!” No, his father would never tell a joke like that. He’d just stick to the words on the paper. It would be better not to take any chances.
He took out his hanky and wiped his hands. Why wouldn’t they stop trembling? He just had to stop his body from shaking or his voice would shake too.
“Brothers and Sisters, I’m happy to be here today. I’m happy to have this opportunity. When the bishop, my dad, asked me to speak, I …” Dumb! Why hadn’t he thought of a better introduction?
It’d been three years since he’d spoken in front of people. Three whole years! Since that time he had always avoided it somehow. But the memory of his last experience had dimmed with time, and he wanted to learn to get up in front of people, so he’d said yes. Now the memory of that former talk seemed painfully fresh again. There he was, struggling and stuttering. He could remember that talk even now. But back then, when he’d seen all those faces, the talk he’d memorized had vanished. It had simply evaporated. “But I didn’t have my notes with me that day,” he thought. “That was my downfall. I hadn’t taken my notes because I wanted to look super-intelligent. Besides, Dad never uses any. But now I’ve got notes, so there won’t be any problem.” If there would be no problem, he wondered, why was he so scared?
Announcements over, his dad sat down a few seats from Jack and cleared his throat. Jack looked at his dad’s profile so much like his own. “But that’s where the similarity ends,” Jack thought. “Dad’s such a powerful speaker.” His father’s talks were always rich with experiences and stories. “I don’t have one story in this talk,” Jack thought. “Everyone will fall asleep. Well, better if they do.”
His father, sensing Jack’s gaze, looked over, smiled, and nodded. Jack smiled back, tried to swallow the frog in his throat, and took out his notes again. “If I were more of a ‘chip off the old block,’ I wouldn’t be worrying like this.” But then he made a tight fist. “I don’t need to be just like Dad. I don’t need to be outgoing and dynamic. I can be just as good as myself.”
He lowered his head and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. It wouldn’t do to have the wetness fog up his glasses. Then a thought came to Jack that made him shudder. He pushed his toes hard against the soles of his shoes. “What if I break down? What if I break down and cry or something? Cry, out of pure fright. No, I wouldn’t do that. I know I wouldn’t. Brothers and Sisters, I’m happy. …” It would just take eight and a half minutes. For eight and a half minutes he could surely control himself. “Maybe my voice will crack a time or two in those eight and a half minutes, but I don’t think I’ll really break down, at least I hope …”
Sister Carlson was leading the sacrament hymn now, and Jack opened the hymn book and thumbed through it for the hymn. He hadn’t heard the page number. When he had finally looked in the index and found “Come, Follow Me,” he joined in on the last verse. But something was wrong with his voice. It wasn’t clear and deep. It was hoarse and timid. “I don’t have a voice. How can I give a talk without a voice?” He cleared his throat, coughed, and then tried to sing again. This time he was relieved to hear his voice clearing up a little.
“The Word of Wisdom is important for us to follow because …” The words to his talk were flowing through his mind now, but not in order. They were all jumbled. He sang a few more words and then breathed deeply in and out again.
After the sacrament Jack saw his father shuffle a few papers, smile over at him, and walk to the podium. “This is it,” Jack thought. “Dad’s going to introduce the speakers now and I’m first. At least it’ll be over within eight and a half minutes from now.”
His father’s rich, bass voice echoed through the chapel. Dynamic, a powerful speaker. The congregation was staring up at the podium. In a moment he, Jack Miller, would be up there with everyone staring at him, expecting so much. There was a thickness in his chest and a slight pain. A heart attack. Maybe he’d have a heart attack.
“I can’t get up there! I can’t do it! I don’t even think my legs will hold me when I stand up. I think I’m going to be very sick any minute. I’ve got to tell Dad I can’t. I … no, I’ve got to do it. I’ve just got to.” It didn’t make any sense. Where was his great self-image? This morning in front of the mirror, he’d read his talk without a single error. He’d even used his hands, and he’d been in perfect control.
“We have a little problem tonight, Brothers and Sisters,” his father was saying. “It seems we were unwise in calling as our main speakers Brother and Sister Emery. We hope our asking them to speak didn’t start Sister Emery’s labor, but whatever the cause, a little spirit seems very anxious to join our ward family. I just received a note that the Emerys are at the hospital right now.” Everyone chuckled. Everyone except Jack. “Therefore, his father turned and smiled at him. “We’ll tell our youth speaker, my son Jack, that he can have all the time he wants. I’m sure he’s happy about that.” The congregation chuckled again as Jack felt the heat rushing to his head. He had been so concerned about his own talk that he hadn’t even noticed that the Emerys were missing. “There goes the eight and a half minutes,” he thought.
“Then maybe we’ll ask a few members of the ward here tonight to say a few words,” his dad continued. “But before my son speaks, I’d like to say a few words about something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately—the priesthood.” His father confidently placed one hand on the pulpit and put the other in his pocket.
Jack put his head in his hands. Oh no, this couldn’t be. He’d have to follow his dad. This was even worse than he’d thought. “Now I know I can’t do it,” he cried to himself. But what was his father saying?
“In our family we have someone who has used his power of the priesthood and magnified it. But then, even when he was small he believed in the power of the priesthood.” The warmth rushed to Jack’s head again as he realized his father was talking about him. “I have a special story about Jack that’s important to our family, and I’d like to share it with you. It’s special because …”
Jack looked up to see why his dad was pausing so long. He saw that his dad had taken his hand out of his pocket and was grasping the podium.
“It’s special because …”
“Not that story, Dad. Please. You can’t ever get through it.” Jack was writhing in his seat now, but not for himself. He knew the story well. His dad had blessed him after the automobile accident, and it had saved his life. But his dad had never tried telling it in public. Why now?
“My boy was only three, but he asked for a blessing …” Bishop Miller’s voice was coming out in spurts and his fingers were turning white. This time the pause was longer. “You’ll … you’ll have to excuse me. I shouldn’t try to tell this story. I …” Two more times he began the story, but emotion overcame him. Two more times he stopped, each time pausing longer than before. “I’m sorry … I … The doctors had said …” His father stood at the podium silently now, unable to control his voice. Jack sat behind him on the edge of his seat, grasping the arm rests. He had only one thought: “I’ve got to help Dad.”
As if all emotion had transferred itself, Jack felt curiously calm as he stood up straight and walked the few steps to the pulpit. There he put his arm around his father. “Bishop, I mean, Dad, let me finish the story for you.” His father turned to him in surprise, the tears still trickling from underneath his glasses. Then he nodded with relief and sat down.
It was strange how courageous he felt as he told the story that was so important to their family. Some of the members of the congregation wiped their eyes at its finish. But, now, it was Jack’s turn to pause. What would he say now? Speaking on the Word of Wisdom just didn’t seem appropriate anymore. He opened his Book of Mormon to his notes and stared at them. Then he looked above them to a scripture he’d underlined on that page of his Book of Mormon: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.” (1 Ne. 1:1.) Immediately he read the scripture aloud for he knew now what he would talk about. He looked down into their faces. There was Sister Jackson, the Wade family, and good old Brother Price, their home teacher. There were the Smiths and the Jacksons, and there was his own family, with his mother beaming at him. He became excited to tell them all. He wanted to tell them his feelings.
“Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I’ve been a bit rebellious about having a father who is bishop,” Jack said. “Everyone expects so much. But now I, Jack Miller, having been born of goodly parents, would like to tell you what it means to have a dad like mine who honors his priesthood and loves others.” He looked back at his father who was smiling widely. “This is my chance to get even with him for all the stories he’s told about me and others in his talks.” The congregation laughed, and Jack heard his father’s deep chuckle behind him.
He confidently placed one hand on the podium and the other in his pocket as he continued. His voice echoed through the microphone with a mellow, subtle power. The Spirit warmed within him and he, Jack Miller, became a speaker.