Image by Leon Fishman
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Now this means, to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
— Jerry Seinfeld
I was 12 years old and heard the words that always scared me the most: oral report.
My topic was Paul Revere, and I had a week to prepare. Each day, I worked on getting ready. I researched my little facts and put each one neatly on an index card.
Paul Revere was a silversmith.
One if by land, two if by sea.
The British are coming.
I numbered my note cards and practiced in front of the mirror until I had every word and pause memorized. When I practiced in front of my mom, though, I felt the fear, beastly talons that gripped my heart.
I hid from that fear as well as I could, but at odd moments throughout the week, it would find me. I would be sitting in class daydreaming, and I would suddenly feel those talons give my heart a rough squeeze.
The day of the report arrived, and I sat not hearing the reports of the other kids. I tried to calm myself. One if by land, two if by sea….
My name was called, and I sat there, stunned. The teacher smiled at me. After an awkward pause, I went up and faced the class.
Clutching my little note cards like a life-preserver as I bobbled in the deep, icy waters of my fear, I read the first one: Paul Revere was a silversmith.
I finished whatever I said and looked out at the class. Faces stared at me with pity as surely as the British were coming. The other kids had their own fear to deal with, but they now knew that mine was the greatest.
I didn’t know whether I could make it back to my seat without falling. My teacher took a step toward me to help. Spooked, I stumbled toward the desk-and-chair contraption and collapsed into it, sweating and gasping.
That failure stayed with me. All through high school the words “oral report” would ruin my week as I dreaded the calling of my name. No matter how much I prepared, I was left unprotected from that vicious moment.
In college, I forced myself to take a public speaking class. With that small group of peers and repeated exposure, I learned to tolerate it, like an arachnophobic slowly exposed to spiders.
I was never cured, though. Throughout grad school and into my teaching career, I would sometimes voluntarily make a comment, and the talons would suddenly seize me in a surprise attack. I’d be left stammering, embarrassed that this old fear still had a hold on me, a grown-up, a professional.
For twenty years now, I’ve faced rooms full of students and given my spiel five times a day. It’s helped, but that old fear is always lurking. I assign oral reports, and I tell kids how repeated exposure helps.
I have almost completed 101 things in 1001 days, and I am thinking of new challenges. I know the one that scares me the most.
Updated 07/2015–I gave a speech at the #BlogHer15: Experts Among Us conference! My #BlogHer15 Recap as a Timid and Squeamish VOTY Featured Honoree: From Excited to Terrified to Exuberant