This is hell. This is high school. This is eighth-period public speaking.
“To finish your high school English credits, you have to take four more semester classes. A college level paper writing class, a literature class, an elective, and a public speaking class,” My tenth grade honors English teacher had said.
A college-style paper writing class? Easy. Literature? My highest ACT score was in reading. An elective? They’re offering a creative writing class, and I love to write. Public speaking? RED ALERT RED ALERT MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY!
Even then I felt the bile rising in my throat at the thought of giving some dumb speech on whatever. What is this? I never signed up for this.
Yet nothing came about to change the fact I had to take the class. September fifth, first day of school, and I sat in the front row because that’s where I was assigned. And then he started talking. Speaking like he was born giving speeches. The teacher made it seem so easy, and I was lulled into complacency. I actually thought I could do it for a second.
And now here I am. Looking at the speech schedule posted on the Smart Board, and I am back to the fear.
The fear. The fear is everywhere inside my body, not just in my head. In my fingertips, I scratch at my jeans compulsively because If I don’t I will physically shake. My neck cramps, my stomach goes all acidic all of a sudden. My airway seems to constrict, but I don’t seem to be taking in less air. My muscles all tense. My fight or flight reflexes are on overdrive- I want to leap from my chair and run until my legs and lungs give out.
All these things would still be happening if I weren’t going first.
He printed out all our names, cut them into little strips, and numbered us off after shaking the hat he put the names in. The first name he pulls out was my own. Next was some senior that I’d never met, and after him is some precocious tenth grader. This class isn’t even offered to tenth graders, but this kid is a smarty pants who’ll be going to college before I will.
None of the other names register inside my head. I almost vomit right there, all over my front row desk.
It’s not that I’m unprepared. I have my speech all written out. I’ve compulsively practiced many times. I know the speech backwards and forwards, it’s the people that I’m worried about. Their eyes on me, boring into my soul, seeing everything wrong with me. They don’t hear my words, only the quiver in my voice and they will eat me alive for simply being afraid. The other kids are monsters who will tear me apart if I show weakness. This is not a game.
The day comes, and I am not ready. My slideshow is prepared, my notecards are ready, and I’ve practiced thousands of times in the mirror. I am wearing formal clothes, and I’ve gone over the grading rubric thoroughly. I’ve got the facts down pat, so the easy part is over.
Now the hard part. My stomach writhes and I think I might vomit. I hear nothing of the guy ahead of me, only the finishing bit the signifies that it’s my turn for scrutiny.
I seem to be glued to my chair. The teacher tells me it’s my turn, and as I meet his eyes, I know something important. He must be afraid too. Or at least, once was. He can see how afraid I am, and maybe is letting me see that it will be alright.
I stand up slowly and shuffle to the podium with my note cards in hand. I know this speech in and out, It’s only the people. Usually, I pride myself in not caring what others think of me, but now every horrible situation flashes before my eyes and it’s hard to breathe. The teacher introduces me, my subject, and prepares my visual aid.
He hands me the clicker that controls the projector and sets up a timer on one of the other student’s desks. The student will click start once I start to speak, so it is only a matter of getting going. Then I can go sit, once I’ve said what I have to say.
“How many of you are afraid of public speaking?” I whisper inaudibly, and clear my throat and repeat it so people can hear me. Some hands go up, and I suddenly gain the ability to meet the eyes of those who are also afraid of public speaking. Blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes all seem to be afraid of public speaking too.
I stumble out the rest of my speech on fear of public speaking in 3 minutes and 32 seconds, 28 seconds shorter than the bottom requirement. I feel so stupid as I sit down. When I practiced it, the speech was much longer than 3:32. It had been around a minute longer. All that fear in me for a B- grade.
When the days' speeches are over, the teacher asks us what we saw and liked in the speeches. I don’t offer up anything because that was quite enough public speaking for one day, but suddenly I hear my name on the lips of some other entity. I look over to this sullen looking brown haired girl with lips painted dark red.
“I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but she looked really scared, I just thought she did well for seeming terrified,” she shrugged.
Did well? How could I have done well when all I could think about was my failure? The people who would see me downtrodden and not give me a second glance? What of the people who did better without the fear I held? It isn’t a matter of how good I was while afraid, it’s that I can’t seem to get over it.
The teacher asks me if I have anything to say to her statement. I shake my head no. I am agitated. My hands balled into fists and I feel myself making a face. No one seems to get this kind of thing. It’s not that I did well for a terrified person, it’s that I shouldn’t be terrified at all.
Class ends. I pick up my backpack and leave. I live fairly close to home so I walk instead of taking the bus. I go to my locker, get my lunch bag out and pull on my coat. Suddenly there is a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, did I offend you with what I said?” says the brown-haired girl. Her eyes are brown too, and her skin is flawless. I am blown away by how unblemished she is, and she is clearly not wearing much in the way of concealing makeup. Just the lipstick and a little mascara. I am suddenly speechless in a new way.
She takes my silences in the wrong way. Her eyes dip and suddenly she changes from inquisitive to sad. This is unacceptable.
“No, I wasn’t offended. Why?” I respond, and she looks into my eyes again and smiles.
“I don’t know, you just looked kinda mad after I said that. I guess it was kinda blunt,” she says and looks down. “You were making faces.”
“I didn’t mean to be,” I shrugged. “It only felt like you were almost making light of it. It isn’t as easy as just doing it.”
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“I was almost unable to do it,” I said, “no one else had as much trouble as I did.”
“Are you joking?” She asked, and I raised my eyebrows.
“No? Literally, no one else had any trouble,” I said, and she raised one eyebrow skeptically.
“If you think that, you really were not paying attention to the other speeches,” she rolled her eyes. “You were far from the only one with stage fright.”
“But I-” I began, and stopped. Something was true in her words, but I was not ready to accept it. “I have to go home.”
I pulled my backpack back on and walked out through the glass doors near my locker. It was a cold day, but the wind had died down and the sky was dappled with small white clouds. As I walk home, I accept what she said, and realize something of my own. I did something I never thought I could. I gave a speech to a large audience and nothing extraordinarily bad happened. Little flashes of other speeches played, and I saw just as frightened people talking.
I was not alone in my fear, and I’d given a speech. I really had, somehow, but I had. Maybe this semester class wouldn’t annihilate me.