I’m not sure when I began to fear public speaking, but that terror of getting in front of a group, or just voicing an opinion, has always been with me. Looking back, I think it must have been during my early school years (after being teased mercilessly by the kids at school for what, in their eyes, were unforgivable sins) when I decided it was dangerous to my well-being to draw attention to myself. And I did a damn good job of hiding too. I never raised my hand during class, only spoke when called on by the teacher, and refused to take a required public speaking class in high school.
Somehow I managed to skate through school pretty much voiceless, until 10th grade English class. We’d been paired up by the teacher and assigned topics to be presented orally,without notes. If that weren’t bad enough, the presentation was supposed to take half the class period, something like 20 minutes. It might as well have been a lifetime. My partner, a girl who spent more days out of class than in, left me alone to prepare our project, showing up only on that terrible day, with nothing to say.
I still shudder with the memory of that class, all these many years later. I remember what I wore; I remember the classroom with its tall casement windows that remained closed, locking in that pungent scent of teen hormones. I remember my fellow classmates staring at me, 25 faces turned expectantly toward me as I stumbled my way through myriad facts and figures which I had so meticulously organized and prepared to enlighten them. That’s all it took – that glance at their expressions of pity – and I was done. My mouth clamped shut and my lungs filled with air that somehow wouldn’t release, as if I were drowning in my own breath. My heart sledge-hammered against my ribs in a frenzy worthy of a run for my life. I think if anyone could actually die from panic, I would have in that moment. My clearest memory of that afternoon is looking back to the teacher, mutely begging for a mercy that wouldn’t come.
Of course I didn’t die of humiliation that afternoon, but that experience did cement my belief that public speaking could bring me nothing but misery. I took it even further though. I stopped speaking at committee meetings, in work groups, in church gatherings, so fearful I’d say something stupid or inane, or challenge-able, that it was preferable to simply keep silent. But keeping my mouth shut led to its own set of troubles, to a feeling of frustration that wanted to blow like steam from a boiling kettle of water. Most people, if they feel strongly about something, want to be heard. And so did I. I was just paralyzed with fear, until I began writing.
Suddenly all the thoughts in my head found a voice, first with paper and pencil, then with computer and keyboard. Paper is safe, and so is the computer screen. Neither medium talks back. Neither yells at you, or calls you stupid or fat. Or ugly.
Of course I’ve grown up since those days, and looking back from the vantage point of having raised two children to adulthood, I realize how unfounded my fear might seem to some. And over these years I’ve conquered those fears, to some extent. I’m able to speak to people in public now. Sometimes I’ll even start conversations with complete strangers standing in the grocery line next to me! <g>
Still, there are times when the thoughts in my head won’t be satisfied, won’t be quieted, until I’ve typed them up into a document, saved and stored them to be read over again, some day in the future. This blog is for those times.