In my sophomore year of high school, I remember a particular speech I had to deliver in my English class. It was just like any other, honestly. But this one, this specific one, gave me the greatest trouble. My irrational fear of public speaking consumed me and turned me against myself. I remember the mindset that I had for most of my sophomore year: me vs. them. That was how high school was. It was every man for himself. But never would I have ever thought that I was my own biggest obstacle.
In my head, I felt I was a puppet acting for the audience’s amusement. I wasn’t being controlled by the deathly stares of those I been so open with for the entirety of that year. I had become my own most critical enemy. I had torn myself apart with the self-induced pressure to succeed and stress to appease my teacher and classmates alike. I had lived too long with the mentality that I was fighting the obstacles put into place by others when this was slowly reducing me to the puppet I had tried so hard not to become.
And this speech, just another English assignment, became the tipping point, the realization, that I couldn’t continue to fault others in my own self-induced struggle to be successful. I woke up nervously to my phone alarm buzzing loud and clear in the solemn morning ambiance. My sore eyes woke up to the immense darkness engulfing the room, interrupted only by the bright glow of my phone screen as I quickly snoozed my alarm. The blanket on my bed comforted all my morning aches and pains while adding to my will to procrastinate as I waited for the first rays of the morning sun to beckon me to perform my daily morning chores.
But this day wasn’t like any other day I remembered. Drowsily brushing my teeth, I walked to my desk and pulled out my crumpled speech from under the pile of binders, notebooks, and loose papers that were piled upon the hardwood desk. My neatly typed up, double-spaced, Times New Roman font paper was smeared with pencil-written reminders to make eye contact with the audience and to pause at certain points. I anxiously skimmed over the words I had practiced for hours the previous night, feeling confident, but slightly anxious about this presentation.
After reading over the short speech and making hurried mental notes, I threw the paper back into the disorganized heap on my desk and stepped into the shower. Most of my time in the shower had me running my lines through my head, remembering my cues, and shaking off the occasional misspoken word or stutter that seemed to occur each time I thought I had my part down. With each recurring mistake, my confidence in my ability to make an eloquent speech waned. By the end of what felt like a frustratingly short shower, I found myself worse off than when I started.
I managed to erase from my short-term memory any remnants of this failed practice session and foolishly blamed it on my early morning daze. Preoccupied with discontent in my hurried practice, I had to rush to stuff all my school items into my surprisingly compact backpack in order to give myself just enough time to gulp down my breakfast. As I sat at the dining table, alone, eating my cold bowl of oatmeal, my mother walked in nonchalantly, my problems unknown to her. Her motherly instincts kicked in and she curiously asked, “How’s your speech coming along? ” That was my cue to attempt to recite my entire speech by memory.
Once again, I simply couldn’t. My mother’s curious expression felt like a razor sharp glare, and my already underconfident attitude towards this speech spiraled into the abyss. I stuttered through the speech with many long pauses and constant glances at my written copy, but I finally got through this ordeal and looked nervously in the direction of my mother, who by now was busy brewing her morning coffee. As she stirred her cream and sugar, she said without mincing words, “You definitely need to work more on this. You don’t sound prepared. When is it due? ” Oh, no! , I thought, discouraged by her tone and question.
I hadn’t told her. I ignored the question altogether. I changed the topic by urgently insisting I’d be late for school if I didn’t pretty much swallow my breakfast. I hastily grabbed my bag, shoved my speech into the side pocket, gave my mother a quick peck on the cheek, and rushed out the door. I had English first period. Fantastic! , I thought. I checked the time on my phone as I pulled into the school driveway; it read 7:43. The cold winter breeze had numbed my fingers as I biked to school, and the texture of the rough paper gave me an odd sensation while I pulled it out while walking into Ms.
Bennett’s room. The class was somewhat empty before school. Ms. Bennett gave me a bright morning nod while Luke looked up from his computer screen, solemnly acknowledging my presence. The class was organized for presentations with the projector screen set up in front of the whiteboard. A lone podium stood in front of the class, with three rows of identical blue plastic chairs set up facing it. I sat on one of the chairs, alone with my thoughts, my paper in front of me. Before I knew it, the bell had rung. All my deepest and darkest fears were starting to become a reality.
The students piled into the class, their collective nervous energy pulsating across the tiny confines of the room. Ms. Bennett strolled to the front of the room and began speaking. I can’t quite remember what she specifically said, but as each second passed by I could hear my heart thump louder and louder. Twenty-five pairs of attentive eyes tracked her lips’ every move, I observed. I recall faintly picking up her invitation to look at the screen, a bright screen displaying a content-heavy chart of names and numbers. My eyes worriedly tracked the chart, scanning the screen for my name. Shit, I thought.
I was due to give my speech fourth, and that too, right after Audrey. I grumbled, but carried on with my mental practice, trying in vain to remember each line, to fix the mistakes I made earlier in the morning. The first two presentations flew by, and before I knew it, it was Audrey’s turn. She confidently walked up to the lone podium, made perfect eye contact with the audience, and proceeded to deliver an impeccable speech. Oh, great, I thought, just what I need. Now my speech is sure to sound crappy. While she finished up her speech with a strong conclusion as always, I glanced at Ms.
Bennett, who was furiously writing notes with her pen on her pad in the back corner of the room. Her lips crinkled into a faint smile, confirming my thoughts. How could I possibly follow suit? A thunderous applause from the audience jolted me out of my reverie and gave me a startling reminder that I was up next. All of a sudden, the class went pin-drop silent. All twenty-five sets of eyes were focused on me. In my isolated chair in the back of the room with my crumpled speech in hand, I stood up trembling and walked to the front of the class. There couldn’t possibly be only twenty-five students in this class, right?
Whispers from the audience seemed to be amplified as if I could hear every little murmur produced by my peers. Were they talking about me? What have I done wrong? Please don’t judge me, not yet. I plopped my now-torn speech on top of the smooth wooden face of the podium, and eventually mustered up the courage to finally look my audience in their eyes. My heart was pounding out of my chest. The otherwise cool room suddenly felt like a sauna, and a bead of sweat rolled down my forehead. With my fist clenched to contain my excessive nervous energy, I began. The words tumbled out of my mouth at the beginning.
My anxiety caused the words to come out with a jerky awkwardness, replete with fits and starts. My eyes darted from paper to the audience and back. As the first paragraph painfully drew on, the murmurs of the audience amplified to a scream, tearing into my eardrums. My one furtive glance at Ms. Bennett sitting in the back of the room seemed to reflect the grim truth. Her facial expressions signaled disappointment and discontent. The crowd of students, all holding the same blank expression, mocked my every mistake. My mother’s words from earlier this morning, You definitely need some work on this echoed through my mind.
My audience, or rather an audience, sat in front of me, controlling my every decision. Their judging looks taunted me into making mistakes. This wasn’t my fault, it was theirs. It was the malicious intent in their shrewd stares that forced me into taking the defensive stance. It was a war, them versus me, and I was losing badly. My concentration was divided into two actions. My lips, reading my speech with fault, like a machine starved of oil, and my mind, judging, focusing, criticizing my every word. I felt alone. My friends in the corner, the ones who had been there for me all year long, were just another face in the crowd.
Their lack of support only added to my doubt and distress. They can’t be like the rest. They are here for me, I begged and pleaded. But my internal cries for help remained unanswered. I was alone, exposed to the selfish nature of my fellow classmates, in a fight to survive, not against a grade, but against my preconceived fears. I was fighting myself. Eventually, I got into a sort of rhythm. I repeatedly blocked out the self-deprecating thoughts that flashed through my discombobulated mind and focused on the words on the page. I had run through this hundreds of times.
I know what I am doing, I encouraged myself. Eventually, my broken words formed coherent sentences, my chaotic thoughts streamlined into a flowing river of ideas, and my nervous energy transformed into a somewhat confident attitude. Yet this still didn’t feel entirely comfortable. With every glance back at the crowd, my increasing self-assured attitude would take a beating as if it were whisked away into the greedy possessions of the twenty-five other people staring directly at me. I simply couldn’t handle it.
The whispers, the rapid pen strokes on Ms. Bennett’s binder paper, the tapping of a particular nervous student in the front row, intensified and echoed around the crowded room. I had never been particularly claustrophobic, but the walls began to appear as if they were closing in on me. Me, all alone, by myself, exposed to the judgment of my peers. My friends? I didn’t know anymore. A lone drop of sweat slid down the right side of my forehead, splattered across my crumpled paper, and smudged my disorganized notes that littered the paper’s margins. My contact lenses betrayed me and my eyesight became blurry.
My hands violently tapped my shorts. I swung my left foot to and fro behind the podium, and my eyes blinked rapidly as I tried to regain my composure and remember the bits and pieces that made up the story that was my speech. Was this really MY speech? Am I really in control? Although my face showed self-assurance, my inner thoughts were an internal conflict clashing with my fears. I tried to fight back the emotions of distraught, disappointment, and disgust. The concluding line of my speech followed by my thank yous left me overwhelmed with relief rather than pride for a job well done.
The twenty-five pairs of eyes that had judged my every move, my every word, my every thought, returned to their monotone expression and gave a half-hearted applause. No legitimacy, no authenticity, just a plain and boring clap. Maybe that was all my speech was, plain and boring. I once again looked back at Ms. Bennett, who was preoccupied cleaning her glasses. I quickly hurried back to my seat and looked up just in time to see Ms. Bennett give me a nod of approval. Did I really deserve that? Was my speech really good? Was she just taking pity on me?
My conflicting emotions seemed to wage war inside of my already stressed mind, leaving the rest of that class period into a fragmented duration of events. With every passing speech, I gave my lackluster attempt at an applause, joining the other twenty-four students in this cultish act with no enthusiasm or pride in my actions. My eyes were focused on the speakers and the movement of their mouth, the jittering of their nervous fingers, the tapping of their anxious feet, but my mind wandered into the abyss. How was my speech? Did Ms. Bennett like it? What did my friends think about it? Was it at least as good as the others?
The zombie-esque trance that had overcome me made me realize that I had become the audience I dreaded so much when I was up at the podium. I had become one of those twenty-five glaring eyes, I had put on a stone-faced facade – the very same one that tore me to pieces as I spoke. I was fighting myself. If I truly wanted my classmates to support me and applaud for my efforts with sincerity, I had to be equally engaged with them when it was their time in the spotlight. It dawned on me that while I stood up at the podium thinking they were being judgmental, I found that I was no different when the roles were reversed.
There was an end to the procession of speeches. A short speech by Ms. Bennett congratulating us for our achievement. A faint bell rang. I did leave the classroom at some point, too. But I was still afraid. Not of speaking in front of these twenty-five people, or even the hundreds of people later on down the road, but of myself. The one person I should count on, whether it was as I hurriedly prepared notes the night before or as I practiced in the shower, I thought I was in control. It had so far consistently felt like I was in a battle against my perceived critics that were the audience, my classmates.
But really what I was discovering was that it was never about them versus me. It was me versus me. Remembering the mental image I captured as I stood up at the podium, of the twenty-five pairs of beady eyes tormenting me, I realize that my perception of the crowd was just a facade for the real conflict going on inside my own mind. And the inevitable resulting internal conflict was actually unnecessary and entirely in my control. I was in control. And the real injustice didn’t come from the audience or Ms. Bennett at all. It came from within myself.
The next time around, I see myself approaching such a challenge very differently. I see myself overcoming my inner demons. I see myself take responsibility for my preparation and practice. I see myself own my situation and not find someone or something outside of myself to blame for my shortcomings. Besides, how could I blame others for their faults and their control over my actions, when I did the very same with them? This wasn’t about them versus me, but me versus myself. I can make the change I want to see in myself. Or maybe I should have worked on my speech just a bit more.