Throughout elementary and high school, I hungered for the stage and acted in plays and musicals whenever possible. As a part of QUEST, the gifted program at my school, I even traveled to a state FPS (Future Problem Solving) tournament and acted out a carefully scripted monologue in front of a room full of people that I did not know. We did not win, but I will never forget the comment on our evaluation sheet: “Redhead speaker was great!” But my sophomore year in college, I developed a semi-phobia for public speaking. I was researching a subject I never had trouble talking about: Joyce Carol Oates. I decided to focus on the author’s portrayal of rape in several of her stories, and part of the assignment included a five-minute presentation on the research accomplished.
On the appointed day, I watched others present their findings, and my heart began to race as my turn came nearer. I broke out into a cold sweat and felt my hands become clammy. I began breathing between the thumb and forefinger of my clenched fist, an exercise a doctor once taught me to prevent hyperventilating. As I approached the podium, I felt my knees buckle. I grabbed onto the edge of the front desk and slid behind the podium, visibly shaking. I began speaking, and I cringed at the sound of my own voice. It sounded as if Mary’s little lamb had somehow found its way into the schoolroom and attempted to lecture about Joyce Carol Oates. I wobbled through the speech, hardly lifting my eyes from the sheet of notebook paper on which I wrote it. When I did glance up, I noticed the eyes of my classmates widening in sympathy. I finished reading with a buzzing in my ears and returned to my seat, my face flushed scarlet—ears bright red. Where was the “great redheaded speaker” from my childhood?
After the Oates incident, my anxiety continued to worsen. I would begin hyperventilating the night before I had to speak, and I would not sleep well for days in advance. I wondered how I would teach students anything if I could not even talk to them without sweating ice shards. I considered changing my major to Library Science—I could see myself as a bespectacled humbug librarian, animal-hating and hissing at loud children. I made plans to transfer to a school in the mountains of North Carolina to begin this transformation. But before I could begin the process, I had to perform the toughest job given to me since I grew afraid to speak. As a tutor at my university, I was slated to give orientations that introduced students to Microsoft Word and GALILEO and taught them MLA format. I wrung my hands in despair at the thought of talking to a room full of college students. I could barely speak in classes where I had come to know my peers and the teacher.
I lit a candle on my nightstand and watched the pattern of the flames on my wall the night before my orientation. I berated myself for not just telling someone my problem and letting someone else give the orientation. I kept reminding myself that I had to see what would happen; if I could not even tell students how to click on the Word symbol on their desktops, why should I bother completing my degree? The teacher scheduled the orientation for eight o’clock the next day. I woke from an uneasy, anxious sleep, unready for the morning. My hands shook as I dressed. As I waited for my ride to work, I tried to put in my contacts—and split one of them in half. I cursed as I rummaged in my nightstand and realized I had ruined my last pair. Without my contacts, letters were a blur from two feet away. I could not recognize people’s faces and saw only smears of color. I stepped outside, and even without my contacts, I thought the sky looked uncommonly ugly.
My face was pale as I waited for the students to file in for orientation. I breathed into my fist with my head bowed, vainly attempting to conceal my odd behavior.
“Ready?” the teacher asked brightly.
I nodded and mumbled, “Hello.” I began to speak, and I abruptly noticed my fear receding. Because I could not see any of the students, I could not imagine expressions of dislike and distaste on their faces. My voice gained confidence, and I made a joke about my inability to see clearly. Everyone laughed; I only grinned. I felt giddy with the release of pent-up tension and misery. After the orientation, I sat at my computer, unable to stop grinning. It really was a nice day.
Although I still have trouble speaking in front of people occasionally, my lost confidence returned by leaps and then bounds. Now, a moment to loosen up my audience is all I need; humor, I have discovered, puts everyone on the same side. All the same, if you observe my presentation and notice my eyes cross, don’t worry—I’m just practicing not seeing you.