10 Lessons from an S.O.B.

My Las Cruces High School speech and debate coach, Mr. Gaines died  last Saturday.  

He had an antique shop called S.O.B's, which stood for Sweet Old Bob's; 

although, sometimes I felt like those letters meant something else!

Bob Gaines lived multiple lifetimes and impacted thousands of people as evidenced in this article written about him.

While I definitely wasn't his favorite student, and not even close to his most memorable, he taught me ten lessons that will stay with me forever.

Lesson #1 - There is a wrong way and a right way to recite your phone number.

On the first day of class, Mr. Gaines had each of us stand in front of the class and talk about ourselves.  We also had to give out our phone number.  I remember when the first student recited his phone number incorrectly.  

"No!" he yelled.  "That's not how you give out your phone number.  Don't say the last four digits one at a time, say them in groups of two."

This poor student was shocked; I was petrified.  As someone who didn't have a lot of confidence, I definitely didn't want to introduce myself now.  I had said my phone number as 

for so many years that it almost sounded like a song.  I quickly started to recite in my mind, "twenty-nine, eighty-two, twenty-nine, eighty-two" so that I wouldn't get yelled at when I stood up.

To this day, I still give out my phone number the "right" way.

While this may seem like such a simple thing, I learned a much greater lesson.  We must speak so that the audience will remember and understand what we are saying. 

Lesson #2 - Get rid of your um's and er's when speaking. 

Today they are called disfluencies, Mr. Gaines called them annoying. Whenever someone gave a speech, he kept a tally sheet of their disfluencies.  After they finished he'd say, "You said 'um' 27 times." If that didn't stop you from doing it, he had another solution.  He'd assign someone in the audience to ring a bell every time you repeated that syllable.

Again as someone who wanted to stay under the radar, I would practice my speeches over and over making sure I didn't insert anything that would draw Mr. Gaines attention, or make him bring out that horrible bell.

Lesson #3 - Pick a topic that interests your audience, not you.

Fortunately, I wasn't able to stay under his radar.  Quite quickly, Mr. Gaines singled me out as a promising orator and asked me to compete in the first tournament of the season.  Because I didn't have much time to prepare, I used the same speech I used when I won a previous speaking contest.  I was proud of that speech, it was about freedom and Helen Keller, one of my heroes. 

To my shock, I placed at that tournament.

The following week, Mr. Gaines asked to talk to me.  I thought he was going to tell me how proud he was of me.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  He informed me that I was going to change my topic for my oratory to insurance fraud.  

Insurance fraud?  As a very young 15-year old, I didn't even know what that was.  He then went on to explain what my opinion was going to be on the matter.  

I was devastated.  I loved my Helen Keller speech.  I didn't want to talk about something as boring as insurance.  I wrote my first draft, he ripped it shreds.  I wrote a second, and a third, and fourth.  Each time he found something wrong with my speech. Finally, after multiple attempts, he said it was good enough for competition.

My first competition with my new topic, was life altering.  I won every round. I came home with my first ever first-place trophy.

This looks nothing like my trophy, but I wish it did. 

After a few tournaments, I could hear other competitors say, "Oh no, I have Heather Buchanan in my round!"  I was a force to reckon with.

It wasn't until years later, when I figured out what the difference was.  Most of the students selected topics that interested them, but the judges were grown adults, not teenagers.  When I stood up and talked about how insurance fraud was ruining the system for everyone, they listened.  I was speaking to my audience's needs, not my own.  That made all the difference.

Lesson #4 - Don't practice a speech all the way through.

Sometimes our tournaments were so far away, that we had to stay overnight.  That meant hanging out in a hotel with our theater friends.  I remember one tradition was to find a movie on the TV and turn off the sound.  Then the theater kids would use silly voices and dub their own lines to what was happening on the screen.  Who knew they were sitting on a million dollar idea

This usually resulted in everyone on the LCHS team crowding into one hotel room laughing hysterically.

Well, everyone but one.  Me.

Mr. Gaines would come find me and say, "You need to practice your speech again."  Wanting to go where the fun was, I'd try to quickly go through my rehearsed speech.  I wouldn't get very far and he'd stop me.  


I'd go back to the beginning of the speech and he'd stop me again.  

"No, not to the beginning, say that last sentence again."  

I'd repeat the sentence and try to move on.  



He would make me say the same sentence over and over until I got it perfect.

Since that time, I have used that same technique.  To this day, I rarely practice a presentation all the way through.  I will say an opening line up to 80 times before I feel like I have it right.

Lesson #5 - Slow down. 

My senior year I won District in Oratory which meant I got to go to State.  I also took fourth place in policy debate with my partner, Robin Green, which meant we also got to go to State.  Unfortunately for the first time ever, the tournament rounds alternated between Oratory and Debate.  (Usually Debate was on Friday and Oratory was on Saturday.)

This meant that immediately after finishing a debate round I had to figure out where my oratory round was and run to give my oratory speech.  Then I'd find Robin and debate another round.

For those who don't know, oratory and debate require extremely different speaking skills.  Oratory is a polished speech.  I had every hand gesture, inflection, and pause memorized.  Debate requires critical thinking, fast talking, and extemporaneous speeches. 

Let's just say that flipping back and forth between the two skills broke my brain.


After an exhausting debate round, I couldn't find where my oratory round was posted.  In a panic, I started to look for Mr. Gaines.  I found him in the coaches' lounge.  Frantically, I told him my situation.  He said, "Slow down."

I proceeded to repeat my tale of woe only more slowly.   Again he said, "Slow down."

Frustrated, I started to talk as slowly as I could, 

"I. can't. find. where. my. next. oratory. round. is. posted."

He then said, "No, I mean when you give your speech, talk more slowly."  I found out that my speech which was usually 10 minutes and 34 seconds (how crazy that I can still remember that?) was hovering around 7 1/2 minutes.  It was like I was on warp speed.

Needless to say, I didn't do well at State, but through the years when I feel panicked or flustered and am about to give a presentation, I imagine Mr. Gaines looking at me saying, "Slow down."

Lesson # 6 - Don't complain about what you can't change.

When Robin and I were new debate partners, we had a tournament at Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas.  Our topic for the year was the U.S. policy on farm subsidies.  Even though my dad was a soil scientist, I never really felt comfortable with the topic or like I ever understood what I was talking about.  This tournament was no exception.

It was time for our round and when we walked in, no judge was in the room.  The other team was there, but no one else.  The people running the tournament discovered that we were without a judge.  Suddenly, a man wearing a janitor's uniform came into the room and sat down with scoring sheets.  

It was clear that he didn't speak English very well and had no idea what he was supposed to do.  We explained to him that there was an affirmative side, and a negative side, and that we each take turns telling him our position and at the end he picks the winner.

After the debate was over, I was furious!  I can't even remember who won, but I was indignant.   I wanted Mr. Gaines to know about this great atrocity.  When I found him, I told this unbelievable story about how we didn't have a judge so they pulled a janitor away from his job and made him a judge!  Can you believe they did that?  How rude!

He just looked back at me with an expression that said, "What's your point?"  I wanted him to be as upset as I was.  Instead he just said, "Get ready for your next round."

Through the years I've come to realize the wisdom in his statement.  Bad things happen to all of us.  We can get worked up about it, or we can just get ready for what is to come next.

Lesson #7 - What a document doesn't say can reveal as much as what it does say. 

In addition to speech and debate, Robin and I also competed in mock trial competitions.  The state would draft these make-believe cases with affidavits and police reports and our job was to try the case in a court of law.  I'm not going to lie, when it comes to trial lawyers, Robin and I pretty much were the wonder twins.  Thanks to Mr. Gaines.

I remember we had this one DUI case, only the drunk driver wasn't getting sued, the person who served him alcohol was.  She had hosted a party at her home.  One of her guests left the party with too much to drink, got into his car and then got into an accident.  The drunk driver refused a breathalyzer test, but left his vehicle stumbling and slurring. The victim of the accident was suing the hostess for letting him leave her home drunk.

Mr. Gaines always used the theater kids as our witnesses, and they were good.  The rules were that our witnesses couldn't say anything different than what was stated in their affidavits.  Of course being a mock trial, it wasn't a clear cut case so either side could win.

So what did we do?  We dressed the hostess, Patti, to look like a 60-year-old woman.  She spoke with an older voice and appeared so kind and gentle.  Eddie Alvarez was our drunk driver.  He would stumble on his way to the stand, and spoke with slurred speech, implying that was how he was all the time.  We won every time we were defense.

The prosecution teams would get very angry when they saw the kind, elderly woman and stumbling idiot as our witnesses.  They would object saying, "There isn't anything that says the party hostess was an old woman."  Robin and I would come back with, "There isn't anything that says she isn't!"

Just a couple of years later, I would decide to solve a family mystery with just four clues.  It wasn't until I started to look at what the clues DIDN'T say that I would be able to figure it out.  And it only took me 24 years!  

Lesson #8 - Help people come to their own conclusions.

One of the big taboos among Mr. Gaines' students was to date each other.  This wasn't an issue for the speech team, because we were girls--all four of us. The theater group was much larger. Since they performed together so often, pairing naturally happened. Mr. Gaines never made a couple break up, but he helped them discover on their own they weren't right for each other.

As soon as Mr. Gaines could see that two of his students were getting cozy with each other, he would help the relationship along.  He did this by assigning them a duet for the next competition.  This meant lots of rehearsal time together.  As you can imagine, rehearsing was hard work and stressful.  Usually by the time the competition came, the couple was so sick of each other, dating was no longer an option.

Now that Mr. Gaines has passed away, I feel like I can finally confess a secret I kept from him my Senior year.  I'm not sure even Robin knows this.

While competing as a lawyer during the Mock Trial competitions, I dated one of the witnesses! That's right, I dated Dale Woodhouse.  We couldn't have been a more unlikely couple.  I was this goody goody Mormon girl, and he (ah-hem) wasn't goody goody.  We decided that our best option was to keep it a secret from everyone so that Mr. Gaines would never find out. Whether he suspected or even cared, I'll never know, but I have to admit keeping it secret sure made it more fun.

Having teenagers of my own, I've now learned that his strategy is a good one.  We can't dictate to our kids what they should or shouldn't do.  But we can create an environment to help them draw their own conclusions.

Lesson #9 - Always stop at the Owl Bar & Cafe.

Since I'm in a confessing mood, I'll confess another one.  Mr. Gaines made me eat green chiles for the first time in my life.  In Southern New Mexico, green chiles are not a condiment, they are a religion.


And I was a wimp.  I didn't like anything hot, I even put ketchup on my tacos.  I was too scared to try something as hot as a New Mexican green chile.

One day on our way back from a mock trial competition in Albuquerque, Mr. Gaines made us stop at the Owl Bar & Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico. 

It was clear by how he was treated there, he was a regular customer.  He didn't even ask for menus, he ordered for all of us.  He made each of us get a hamburger with green chile on it.  I was too petrified of him to protest.

Actual Owl Bar & Cafe Burger

I ate the hamburger and thought I was going to die.  It was so HOT!  But I ate it and survived.  The next time I had a chance to eat green chiles, I did.  And again, and again.  Now I eat more NM green chiles living in Utah, than I ever did growing up in New Mexico.   I make all of my kids eat them too.  All because Mr. Gaines stopped at the Owl Bar & Cafe.

We all have different Owl Bar & Cafes in our life.  Things we fear without any justifiable reason.  We shouldn't shrink from what we fear, but run towards it.

Lesson #10 - We can always improve. 

I think the greatest lesson of all that Mr. Gaines taught me was that I can always improve.  I'll never forget getting off the bus at Clovis, NM about to compete at District.  He said to me, "I don't think you have what it takes to win."  That night, I took first place.  He walked up to me to give me a hug, and I walked right past him.  I was foolishly angry at him for not believing in me.

Twenty-eight years later, I realize he did believe in me.  If he hadn't, he wouldn't have made me practice my speech in front of him, sentence by sentence.  


He wouldn't have made me rewrite my oratory over and over again. 


 He wouldn't have read my judges' score sheets to see what I was doing wrong before the competition was over.  

He wouldn't have made me compete in extemporaneous and impromptu to keep me terrified and humble.


What I mistook as a lack of faith, was his desire to see me become better than what I was--and that feeling has never left me.  After every public speech, every presentation, and every lecture, I ask myself, "What could I have done better?  Where did I mess up?"  

It's as if I can see his face looking at me saying,  

"Slow down!"

Thank you for the lessons, Mr. Gaines, you S.O.B!