Learning how to speak with confidence and conviction

The question pierced the air, the pulpit of my public humiliation. On the floor, my presentation and my pride shattered.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Somehow I didn’t cry. That was the only solace that came from that day. Somehow I stood at the front of the class, sucked in my breath, held a firm face until the bell rang, and gritted through it. A shred of dignity preserved, some of the humiliating shrapnel avoided.

Freshman year. My first major presentation for an elective I didn’t have any personal interest but took all four years, hoping some college would look at it with some shred of appreciation. It was supposed to fill the period, on a topic I chose. I chose Einstein’s theory of relativity. In retrospect, not the smartest choice.

Public speaking and I were never on good terms. Years of isolation and my mother making friends for me had taught me that talking was an arbitrary skill, meant for those who knew to smile and meet adult’s eyes. I didn’t.

I knew how to be quiet. I knew how to read so long my mother asked if I was still breathing. I knew not to ask for things in stores. I knew how to be the kid all the aunties exalted. And I knew how to write–words were colorful incantations of my imagination, the only thing I could craft without reassembling a thousand times to call it mine. But I didn’t know to say those words aloud.

But this was high school. And that was no excuse. So I tried my best to come up with explanatory visuals and an appealing interactive activity and practiced word for word what I was going to say because I was so much better at writing speeches than speaking them. I slept an hour the night before.

It was the first period of the day, notecards shaking in my hands, breathing as nonexistent as my confidence. The bell rings. I start. I stumbled through the first half, trying to pause and enunciate just like I practiced. I get through my video explaining triangulation and the example of the person on the train versus the person watching the train and the interactive showing that massive objects distort the space-time continuum. I finish my notecards, lift my head to meet my teacher’s eyes, and wait to be critiqued.

She looks at me. “Did anyone understand anything Shreya just said?”

The question pierced the air, the pulpit of my public humiliation. On the floor, my presentation and my pride shattered.

I stood at the head of the class, alone. Blank, uninterested faces blinked back. Again, I was the child on the playground no one asked to play with, the Girl Scout posing for the picture no one stood next to. Again, I was alone.

Fortunately, a couple of students raised their hands, and a senior came up to me after class and told me that he actually enjoyed my presentation. Unfortunately, that single question rang louder than his praise.

In truth, that was not my worst moment in that class. There were times when I did cry, times where my stomach hurt so bad from trepidation I left the period after.

All-nighters, hysterical breakdowns, humiliated tears, recurring nightmares–what was all of it for? To prove to some college I had the basic ability to handle multi-faceted projects? To prove to myself I could endure a teacher who hated me? To prove to her that someone did understand something I said?

Two weeks into senior year, I asked my parents to drop the class. It took them nearly a month to agree, but a month later I was free.

For four years, I endured that shame and fear of saying the wrong thing, not enunciating enough, letters not being the right font or the right color, putting too much or too little text on a poster, being a little too shy, a little too me. For four years, I put a class, a teacher, above my own preference and mental state. For four years, I carried that burden of that single question. It took a single doubt, why, to break that hold.

There was no need to be in an environment where I was derided, doubted, and dreadful. There was no need to prioritize someone who did not respect me over someone who should respect me (myself). There was no need to torture myself another day. Four years later, I carry that question with me, but four years later, it no longer brings burning repulsion. Some growing pains last longer than others.

I had never even packed my own lunch.

I only practiced once, great preparation like most of my endeavours.