Teenagers always make the toughest audience

Columnist Ryan Taylor comments on life in rural America.

By Ryan M. Taylor

For the Capital Press

Published on May 4, 2014 7:17PM

TOWNER, N.D. — I get to speak to a lot of groups over the course of a year. Sometime after I began writing my column in 1994, I began getting invitations to speak after dinners, lunches, suppers and occasional breakfasts. Sometimes, people would ask me to speak at events that didn’t even involve food. It’s always tougher to entertain a crowd that hasn’t been fed.

And, sometimes, I’d get the invitation that speakers always fear — to speak to a group of teenagers and high school students. If I’m lucky, the venue is something like an FFA banquet with a lot of parents mixed into the crowd with the teenagers, and a meal. If not, I find myself looking out at rows of teenagers sitting on bleachers, glad that they’re at my presentation instead of sitting in class, but determined not to tip their hand and show any emotion that would encourage the presenter.

Didn’t get the memo

Once in awhile, though, there’ll be a student in the crowd who didn’t get the memo to maintain a stone-faced expression, and they’ll smile or nod while I’m talking, and that makes all the difference for a speaker. The teachers are always there with some positive energy, too.

If I work especially hard, or spin an above average rope trick, I can get some applause. Several times, I’ve had students come up to me afterwards to tell me how much they appreciated my message, or I’ll see them years down the road and they tell me I made a difference with something I said. That makes it all worthwhile.

Mailbox surprise

Last week, in my mailbox, it got even better. An student I spoke to last year at an FFA banquet wrote me a letter. OK, it was a requirement for a school assignment for a book report he was doing on one of my books, but his letter still meant a lot to me.

He’d read two of my three books, and was going to start the third when harvest time rolled around. He was saving my last book for moments of boredom when he’d be driving the grain cart and waiting for the combine to fill. I took that as a high compliment. I’m honored to have my Cowboy Logic writings keep people company while they’re driving grain cart, or waiting for a heifer to calve, or spending time in the outhouse.

A sense of humor

My student reader told me about the farm, the size of it, and the fact that it’d be bigger but a quite a few acres were under water. Some of the farmland he’d only visited when fishing and duck hunting. I liked his ability to find a little humor in a bad situation. He had some cows, too, and chores to do.

He said he could relate to the stories in my book. We both knew, firsthand, the discomfort of driving a tractor over a minefield of big frozen cow pies in the winter. We both know that pickups are one thing and trucks are something completely different, and the terms are not interchangeable.

Extra credit

He made me glad that I’ve accepted all the invitations over the years to speak to young people in high schools around the region. They’re not the easiest crowd to entertain, or get a reaction from, but, over time, the value of doing it becomes evident. I’d guess there are a lot of teachers and school administrators out there with the same sense of gratification.

My letter writer satisfying his school assignment did tell me he’d appreciate it if I would write back. He finished with clear and honest disclosure, too, saying, “because that would get me bonus points!” I wonder how many extra points he’ll get for being the subject of this week’s column.


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