Failing Up by Angela Rieck

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Growing up on a farm on the Eastern Shore in the 50’s and 60’s meant that there weren’t a lot of organized activities, instead I lived a rich life playing outside with my brothers and sisters and our extracurricular activities were focused around 4H. I credit 4H with making me a good public speaker, simply because I embarrassed myself so many times in 4H competitions, that I am fearless.  

4H offered competitions in public speaking, Demonstration Day (I’ll explain later) and livestock shows. The 4H public speaking competition required us to walk up onto a stage and give a 5-minute talk to an audience consisting of beleaguered families and judges. My first venture into public speaking was an early indication of what was to come.  I tripped going up the stairs and my 3”x 5” notecards scattered all over the stage. On that day I learned it would have been good to number my notecards, since the talk consisted of my presenting notes from 3×5 cards in random order…I finished dead last.

Our poor mother was a very patient and hopeful soul, so she signed us up for Demonstration Day, which is a competition where we “demonstrate” to that same audience how to make something. Recognizing our limited talents, my mother suggested that we demonstrate making juices.  I chose a fruit punch and my mother purchased a pitcher that would fit the juices in the punch exactly. I was to demonstrate how to combine and measure different juices into a virtually undrinkable solution. In my nervousness, I forgot to measure the grape juice and poured the entire contents (instead of ½ cup) into the pitcher.  The pitcher began to overflow, but since I knew that the juice was supposed to fit, I continued to pour the grape juice despite the fact that most of grape juice was now spilling from the pitcher to the table to the floor.  A resourceful woman grabbed a towel to mop it up, but I was not to be deterred, so I continued pouring until the last drop of grape juice was on the table and floor. I finished last.  

My sister chose lemonade.  After squeezing all the lemons, she knocked over the cup of lemon juice and it, too, poured onto the table and floor. Her reaction was different from mine, she just stood and cried.  She finished last.

Needless to say, there was little reflected glory for my mother that day, who was nonplussed and told us that we would do better next time.

Not so. The next year, recognizing that cooking may not be my skill, I decided to demonstrate how to train a dog, my German Shepherd, Gretchen.  We started well, she sat right away, but then she lost interest in the other commands, so she remained seated despite my instructions to heel, lie down, etc.…I finished last.

The next year I went back to cooking and gradually got better with such subjects as “Fun with Refrigerator Biscuits”, “How to Make a Fruit Salad”, “No Bake Cookies” and other notable topics.  I eventually started to win. This culminated with my County win of “You and Your Dog”, where I showed how to take care of a dog… Gretchen’s choice to remain seated, this time, worked in my favor.

I went on to livestock competitions, where I took my cow, Valentine (guess what mark was on her forehead), to a county fair to judge the fairest Holstein in the land.  First, let me give you a picture of what I looked like. I was 8 years old, very scrawny and skinny. For the competition, I was dressed in a white cotton button-down shirt that had a way of getting untucked every time I moved.  It was finished with a Kelly-green string tie and a white accordion pleated skirt. The skirt was too big, so I had pinned the waistband with a safety pin, making it hang sideways. One side of the skirt was below my knobby knees the other side was above.  My chin length hair was braided with green ribbons. Calling it braids was a little generous because the braids were less than 2 inches long and most of my fine blonde hairs were fleeing their constraints. My bangs were in the mid-forehead style, and my skinny legs were completed with white bobby socks and saddle shoes.

I wore a big “Stevie Wonder” grin to complete the look. Of course, by the time the competition had begun my white shirt and skirt were no longer stain free, as I had managed to sit in manure (yes, good question, how can one miss that?) and wiped my hands on my shirt. But I was ready, ready to win. I put the halter on Valentine and proceeded to parade in a circle with the other cows (who I can assure you, were not as pretty as Valentine). As we were walking, the cow in front of Valentine took a dump on Valentine’s nose, I didn’t know if I was allowed to wipe it off with my shirt, so I tried to pretend that my cow did not have poop on her nose.  Turns out that Valentine did NOT like having crap on her nose and started to buck, whereupon the judge made me leave the ring in disgrace. I finished next to last, followed by the cow that pooped on her nose.

There are other stories, but you get the gist, I found that I survived all of these humiliations, which is why I am a fearless speaker.

I have even received a standing ovation for a High School commencement speech.  I was President of the Board of Education; and Board Presidents are expected to speak on several occasions, including High School graduation. On this particular graduation day, it was oppressively hot and humid.  We were in an unairconditioned, breezeless, 100-degree auditorium. The students, parents, families, Board of Education members, distinguished guests and teachers were soaked with sweat. Even the flowers and balloons brought by proud parents had wilted.  So, it was my turn to speak, my turn to rouse this next generation. I surveyed my audience and I began “On behalf of the Board of Education, I will NOT give a speech.” The crowd went wild.

I have given many speeches over the years, for events, for business, teaching, but this was the most applause that I would ever receive. Kind of makes all of the humiliations worthwhile, doesn’t it?

Angela Rieck was born and raised on a farm in Caroline County. After receiving her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland, she worked as a scientist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Throughout her career, she held management jobs at AT&T, HP and Medco, finally retiring as a corporate executive for a large financial services company. Angela is also a wife, mother and an active volunteer serving on the Morris County School Board for 13 years and fostering and rehabilitating over 200 dogs. After the death of her husband, Dr. Rieck returned to the Eastern Shore to be with her siblings. With a daughter living and working in New York City, she and her dogs now split their time between Talbot County and Key West, FL.  

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