Why I No Longer Fear Public Speaking

I was on my first author’s panel this weekend at the Real Myth and Mythril symposium.  It went well, overall, though when I first got there, I sat down and saw that several of the other authors had copies of their books with them, or advertisements for them.  Damn, I thought.  Real writers.  Not that I’m not a real author, but I am a relative newcomer, and have only published short fiction.  Still, I felt out of place, and was terribly nervous; once the panel started, though, I was fine.

In the past, had I been asked to join a panel, I wouldn’t have dared.  Like most people, when I was younger, I was utterly terrified of public speaking.  My hands shook so hard I’d drop the cards I was holding, my voice was shaking and barely audible.  I blushed and stammered and hoped to have a heart attack so I’d have a dramatic ending to the speech.  Teaching changed that dramatically, but none so dramatically as the day I went swimming with my students.

Japanese schools have swimming pools, because it’s insanely hot in the summer, and the kids need a break.  This particular school had a large ceramic wading pool on the roof.  My manager told me I wouldn’t be teaching, but merely “playing with kids,” with no further instruction.  I showed up that July day in my regular work clothes, and was informed I’d be helping with swimming.  I dutifully went up on the roof and watched the kids splashing around.  Encho-sensei (the principal) motioned for me to get in.  “Go on, Sensei,” she said.  “Go play.”

I rolled my pants up to my knees and waded out into the pool, the children giggling and jostling around me.  I heard one of them call, “Sensei, dive!” and one of them pushed me down, and they promptly sat on me.  Once I got up, I was soaked from head to toe.  After a few hours passed and all of the classes has a turn, I finally slogged out and stood dripping on the roof.

“Go get changed and have some lunch,” Encho-sensei said.

“I…didn’t bring any clothes,” I replied.  “They didn’t tell me to.”  I figured I’d just go lay in the town square in the sun and get dry.

Encho-sensei frowned.  “Your manager made a mistake.  You’ll never get dry, as humid as it is.  Here, I’ll get some clothes.”

Now, keep in mind that Encho-sensei was an elderly lady who was a good foot shorter than I was.  When she came back, she handed me one of her son’s button-down business shirts and a pair of her own pants, which barely came down to my knees.  So, I had the shirt, which gaped between the buttons a bit,  the pants, and my own black sneakers.  It was really attractive.

I snuck off through the town square, wolfed down my lunch and hid in a cubicle in an internet cafe for two hours until my shift began again.  My hair had dried into frizzy spikes.  I walked back toward the school.  As I approached, I noticed a group of parents and the bus driver standing solemnly up at something near the roof.    They silently turned to look at me, then back up.  I got closer, and realized what they were looking at.  A clothesline was strung across the roof, dipping down over the door, my clothes pinned to it.  Directly above the door, my bra flapped cheerfully in the breeze.

They stared at me.  I smiled as broadly as I could and walked through them with as much dignity as I could muster, glad I was sunburned so that my blush wasn’t obvious.  I ran up the back stairs to the roof and began reeling in the clothesline.  The parents continued to stare in silence, while I continued to smile.  When I finally had all my clothes back, I waved to them and took off to change.

It wasn’t more than a week after that I had to get up on “Parents Day” and address the whole school.  Amazingly, I wasn’t nervous.  After all, it really couldn’t get any worse than having everyone stare at my underwear first.

However, at Christmas, this same school wanted me and my manager to put on a Christmas show for the entire school and their parents.  My manager, Andre, was a very tall, skinny man with a shock of bright red, curly hair.  Encho-sensei handed him a Santa costume that was three sizes too small, so it only came to his knees, showing off his red Converse All stars.  Neither the beard nor the hat fit.  I was given a “Mrs Claus” outfit that I’m pretty sure can from a lingerie store, because it was not meant for everyday wear.  It was also sized to a petite Japanese woman.  Encho-sensei was angry that I wore it over my jeans and sweater, until I showed her that if I wore it alone, I could get a job at the strip bar near the station.

Andre and I went out on stage and put on a pathetic show in our terrible costumes and broken Japanese.  Toward the end. Andre’s beard fell off completely and the buttons popped off the jacket.  “This,” he said flatly, “is the most humiliating experience of my life.”

“At least they didn’t hang your underwear over the door first!” I replied cheerfully.  (Yes, we were still onstage.  No one understood a word we said anyway.)

“I need a beer, right now, and you need to tell me what that means.”  We took some photos, fled the school and went off in search of drinks, and Andre agreed that the underwear was more humiliating than the Christmas show, but not by much.

Ever since then, though, I’m generally fine on stage.  I’ve given demonstrations to a group of four hundred Japanese parents.  I’ve stood up at open house for school and given speeches, and presented papers to college boards.  After a night of addressing a gymnasium full of parents, one of my coworkers said, “I’m so sick to my stomach.  How’d you stay so calm?”

“Well,” I said, “any time they came in and your underwear wasn’t hanging over the door, you know it’ll be a success.”

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