In my never-ending efforts to build up my CV, I joined The Gavel Club, the junior form of Toastmasters International, a few months ago. A public-speaking forum for teenagers, it's the perfect place for loudmouths like me to air their views and, often, grievances. Speech topics range from the bizarre (What I would do if I slipped on a banana skin and fell into a dustbin?) to the topical (Let's all give up taking baths to reduce water usage). Oh, for the day when teenagers will run the world.
When a friend, AJ, first told me about the club, I was more than happy to hitch a ride with her and attend a meeting. One of the driving forces behind this was the fact that free refreshments were offered. My suspicion that AJ was making up the refreshments story to lure me into yet another activity was soon dispelled. As soon as we reached the restaurant, a delectable spread of dishes presented me with the opportunity to begin immediately stuffing my face with chicken puffs and cake. AJ, the party pooper, sternly dragged me away and told me to wait until the break. After about 15 young people had filed into the room, nattering away, I naturally took for granted that they were all Barack Obama-esque confident, articulate types. You know, the ones who enjoy nothing more than forming contacts in the way that they would give a university interview. Eager to begin learning the ropes, I plastered a Paris Hilton smile on my face and assumed what I considered a sufficiently confident, articulate expression. Following AJ to the nearest group of teenagers, I proceeded to stick out my hand and cheerily plunge into a mini-speech about myself. The stares that ensued were uncomfortable, to say the least. An un-flowery "Um, hi -?" from someone was adequate assurance that these people were normal, friendly, stereotypical, uncommunicative teenagers after all. Perhaps it could actually be fun talking about world issues, or whatever public-speaking societies talk about, with them around. We sat in a circle of tables and the conference began. The adult figure, Mr Avinash, was always present in the background to keep order and later deliver a general evaluation of the meeting, but the session was otherwise run by the teenagers alone. A toastmaster, or compère, leads the meeting, with a different theme selected each time. These vary. Deviating from the common "sports" or "music" themes, I signed up as toastmaster once and decided to have "Shakespeare" as the topic of the day. Ingenious, in my opinion, but far from practical. Great as the Bard may be, holding the attention of a bunch of already bored adolescents by rattling on about his use of iambic pentameter is easier said than done. Finally, trawling through Google pages, I stumbled upon a list of Shakespearean curses. We spent a pleasant two hours happily yelling "Thou mammering mangled milk-livered maggot pie!" and the like - you get the idea - across the room to each other. If I gained nothing more from joining the Gavel Club, I have learnt to insult like an Elizabethan. An introduction by the toastmaster was followed by a round-robin session. Everyone speaks for 20 seconds. A question would be asked, such as "Do you think homework should exist?" This did not yield a wide variety of answers. I wonder why. After this, about three people do a project speech - a six-minute talk building on a certain skill, such as organising your flow of ideas, using visual aids or researching your topic. Everyone is disgustingly supportive of each -other. Benevolent smiles at the speaker are so common that it becomes impossible to tell whether the listeners are actually enjoying the speech or inwardly celebrating the speaker's incompetence. They would have reason, too. The best speaker (voted by the audience) gets to take home a gleaming trophy. Dom, for some unexplained reason, always votes for Al Gore, then snorts with laughter when the votes are being counted. The rest of us are too kind to let him know that we know it's him. An evaluator then gets the glorious opportunity to evaluate a speech and criticise it to his or her heart's content. Sparks fly and it all makes for excellent entertainment. Then it's time for Table Topics. Everyone speaks on topics such as "What would you do if you were a monkey?" If you have always had it in you to do monkey imitations but needed a chance, Gavel Club provides the ideal platform. Finally, I can blather on for hours, and all anyone can do about it is say: "Eye contact and body language was taken care of but maybe we can work on the structure." Joy and bliss. Lavanya Malhotra is a 14-year-old student in Dubai.