In which I become a motivational speaker

Note: If you are not familiar with the Saturday Night Live skit in which Chris Farley is a motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river, you must watch it now.

If you didn’t click on one of the links in the paragraph above, you should click on this one. You’ll have to suffer through an ad first. It’s worth it.

As it turned out, my host is the headmaster of Lowcountry Prep. On Friday’s they have an assembly called “chapel.” There is usually a speaker from outside the school. In spite of what “chapel” might imply, the speaker is not always someone connected to an organized religion. On Thursday, Jon, presumably because no one else was scheduled to speak, said, “Hey. Are you interested in a marketing opportunity?”


The next thing I knew, John was offering me my first gig as a motivational speaker. I was somewhat concerned, as I didn’t know just what it was that I had to say to high school kids that was motivational, but Jon, said that it’d be OK to just tell my story. I could start to imagine some things to tell kids that might be of some value. I figured I could write a talk.

I earned a Ph.D. in education, with an emphasis on instructional technology, from a prestigious private institution. Though some might argue that my failure to earn tenure at the University of Tennessee suggests that there was something that I didn’t learn in the course of earning my degree, I did learn how to give a good talk. I know the process. Figure out what the points are, prepare some slides to support each of them, preferably with some amusing photos, or, better, stick in that “Anyone, anyone” scene from Ferris Bueler’s Day Off, and then practice it, out loud, with a stop watch, until you’ve got it nailed. (And if you don’t know that “Anyone, Anyone” scene, you should watch it too. If you want to be culturally literate today, this piece is ever bit as important as references to the Capulets and Montagues were in the 16th century.)

Via a series of text messages earlier in the day, I learned that I could have a computer projector, and set out trying to create some slides. I had a few ideas, contrast my old house and then the camper; show pictures of the inside of the camper; talk about the house burning down; mention leaving the house naked, that usually gets a laugh, (it’s no “anyone, anyone,” but it was sure to kill with the 12-18 year old set); then try to come up with some positive message. It was my first attempt. I wasn’t sure what the message really was. Have insurance? Don’t write enough to get tenure and end up writing a blog? I thought that perhaps I should try to empower these kids to live in their own van down by the river, if only for a month, or a summer. Though I have very few regrets about things I’ve done in my life, not doing anything like backpacking across Europe or hitchhiking across the US, comes close. I thought I might be able to tell them how to go about it. I didn’t think that “lose your job” or “burn your house down (not on purpose)” would be messages that would be messages that would meet with the approval of my gracious host. “Don’t get a credit card, ever” was about the best I could come up with.

My slides were decidedly lackluster. I really wanted pics of Walden as he was at the moment, all packed up and carefully organized. I realized that I didn’t really have a good set of those pics and since time was getting short, I settled for some pics that I took when I first got Walden. Worse, my plans to rehearse the talk were thwarted by an impromptu party at my hosts house. (After the first night when my hosts graciously took me out to dinner, there was a party every night I was in Pawley’s Island.) Though I did take out my laptop and try to tweak the slides, leaving the party to practice a talk seemed rude and, well, not as fun as the party.

I went to bed at midnight, having liberally consumed libations. I and the laptop were put to sleep. I awoke once at 3AM and tried to go through the slides then, but didn’t exactly make it through the talk, much less find a stopwatch. At 6AM I again awoke and looked at the slides a bit more. I found a semi-wrinkled Brooks Brothers no-iron shirt (Walden is not equipped with an iron), some crumpled khakis, and a bow tie. I went into the house and showered. My hosts were surprised to see me awake, the tie was completely unexpected. I still had no time to properly prepare the talk and it was time to go.

I followed Jon to the school in Walden and pulled out the PA, guitar, laptop, mic stand and mic. “Do you have an extension cord?” John asked. I grabbed the 100 foot extension cord, and after asking Thor to return to the camper, Jon and I trotted into the gym to set up. He ran off in search of a projector and screen. It turned out that in a small school the headmaster is sometimes called to double as the A/V guy.

Next thing I knew, the kids were there and I was still fumbling with the guitar. I hadn’t finished properly installing the pickup and its cable somehow gets tied up in the wiring from the old pickup, making it difficult to plug it in. I was still a bit flustered when I started.

Channeling Steve Martin’s early stand-up routines, I thought it’d be good to open with a funny tune on guitar and go from there. I kicked in to “I’m my own grampa,” a tune I’ve known for about 25 years. I somehow started it in the wrong key, however, but didn’t realize it until I was halfway through the first verse. I was not off to a good start. Fortunately, I was able to transpose the one mildly peculiar chord change. Still, it through me off and I was uncomfortably nervous. A kid on the front row was mouthing the words. This was good in that it meant that at least he seemed to be enjoying my performance. It was bad because I was afraid that he’d know if I screwed up the verses, a likely possibility given that I was using all of my cognitive powers transposing from D down to C and had nothing left to focus on the rather complicated verses (the above link also includes a family tree, which is worth a look). The song ended. There was some applause.

I said something about how that was an interesting story but it wasn’t really mine, but I had to use it since I hadn’t written a song about my story yet. At this point the kids, of course, had no idea what to expect. So far they’d seen a decidedly amateurish performance of a sort of funny song and a slide that read “How to Live in a Van; Jay Pfaffman, Ph.D.”

I showed my old house:

And then my new one:

(long-time readers may remember these photos from “Back in the Hood.”)

Then I included my “how I got here” slide, in which I talked about things that I’d done on my way to figuring out what I’d be when I grew up. You know, (a) computer teacher, (b) computer consultant, (c) graduate student, (d) university professor, and (e) a guy who lives in a van. I talked about the “adVANtages” of my life like always being home and how it wasn’t a big deal if I left something at home. Then there were the pictures of Walden. And then, my finale: how you too can live in a van. In my haste, my advice was a bit weak: (a) save your money, (b) don’t get a credit card, ever, and (c) Just do it.

Sounds pretty weak, doesn’t it? There I was. I hadn’t really said anything. My talk was over. I was getting a sinking feeling. What now?

There was, I think, some weak applause. The headmaster, apparently unfazed by my pitiful performance asked if there were any questions. Hands went up. “Such polite students,” I thought. Nobody likes to see a guy go down in flames, so they’re going to throw me a bone. Much to my surprise, the questions were actually pretty good. Apparently people had listened and that there was, unbeknownst to me, something, well, motivational in my talk. Here are a few of the better questions that I can recall (of course forgot to turn on the recorder that I’d brought), many of which caused me to think.

Q: On a scale of 1-10 how good is living in your van?

A: About an 8.

Q: What are some of the disadVANtages of living in a van?

A: I think it’s being away from my friends.

Q: (from a teacher) Are you familiar with the Chris Farley SNL skit?

A: Of course I am. I’d thought about opening with this, but only three people would have gotten it, here it is anyway: First, I want to tell you a few things about me. I am 47 years old. I am divorced, and I LIVE IN A VAN, DOWN BY THE RIVER.

As I predicted, three people laughed.

Q: Where do you shower?

A: People’s houses, mostly, so far. Campgrounds have showers. You can shower at a truck stop for $10, though I haven’t done that yet. I figure that either I’ll be somewhere that I can find a shower, or I won’t care that I haven’t showered.

Q: Wait. Where do you go to the bathroom?

A: Well, I have a bucket, but I haven’t used that yet. Mostly I just stop and use the bathroom. You know, like when you drive to Florida or whatever. Oh. I guess driving to Florida from Pawley’s Island would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it? Well, surely you’ve driven somewhere.

Q: Do you do video blogging?

A: What are you? Some kind of Technology teacher? [She was an English teacher, it turned out.] It’s taken me all week to get eight lousy pictures of Bell Buckle posted and you want video? Are you kidding me? Do you know that decent video takes a pro an hour per minute to produce? What? Yes. I have a camera that says “YouTube ready” on it. OK. Fine. If you promise to go to and follow my stuff, I’ll post a video in the next few weeks.

And on it went. After it was over, there were announcements, like this tiny Single-A school’s soccer team was to play for the state championship against a AA school (and it turned out that they won it! Congrats, girls!).

After it was over, a couple of boys came over, shook my hand and said what a great talk it had been.

I took a picture of the students. Of course, in my haste, I forgot to get a picture of me, so you’ll just have to settle for my view of the world rather than that of the students.

School’s pretty much out now, so I don’t guess I’ll be getting any more such engagements in the short term. Perhaps I could speak to a Rotary Club?

This entry was posted in All, Best, iLiveInMyVan and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In which I become a motivational speaker

  1. cindy says:

    That looks like a rough crowd.

    Your advice was simple, but very good. I second the no credit card rule.


  2. trena says:



  3. dtrauner says:

    …considering that the high school crowd can be a rough group. Maybe you are at the start of a new career? Driving around the country, giving speeches to schools and clubs. 

  4. Kimi Abernathy says:

    Missed saying goodbye! Will you come back through?

    Glad you met two of my favorite people ever –  Jon and Megan. Love, K

Comments are closed.