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Growing up I was a shy mouse. Quiet, introverted and very happy to be myself, lost in my books, dreams and the comfort of the tongue-thrust. It was a safe, comforting place and I was always anxious and worried, someone would ask me a question or direct me to do something and I’ll have to get out of that happy-place I created for myself.
To this day, I prefer to keep to myself mostly, but I love the company of like-minded fun folks whom I can laugh and be silly. I suppose it’s the same for most of us. We like to feel secure and are best ourselves in the company of ones who can.
What does this have to be with fears?
Plenty. As I discovered over a period of time and finally snapped at the age of 15.
I had an irrational fear that I would not be considered cool or hip or nice enough for someone to want to be friends with. It’s lame when you think back as an adult, but these are genuine fears as a child, as a teenager, where acceptance by your peers is the ultimate goal.
I came back to school after the 10th grade summer holidays, a different person. No, I still had the same long braids, the dark skin, the same occasionally tame, occasionally wild eyebrows and the same lunch box with similar south Indian rices, but something had changed inside.
I recall thinking of how much I hated not being acknowledged or wanted to spoken to, and I think it was partly a sub-conscious act to be recognized. I had this sense of urgency to be liked, and to scream at the rest of the girls, that I wasn’t all about studying and books, but I could talk fluently and face an audience and make sense while at it.
Coz surely, there was a lot upstairs in my head, enough that was worthy and valid and they needed to be aired out for the greater good. At least that’s what I thought then.
So, one day in class when Ms. M (our English teacher) asked if anyone wanted to lead or talk about a topic in the next class, I raised my hand. The hand looked alien as much as I did. Before I knew it, I was chosen. I remember the appreciative nod of the teacher and the eyebrows that went up as she said my name and moved on to the next topic on hand. I sat there terrified and shocked. What did I get myself into? A friend smiled at me across the room and I remember looking very scared and wide-eyed.
I know I poured over the topic, wrote pages of notes, bullets and scribbles included. I stood every evening in front of my long mirror and practiced (each time slightly different) the speech. It wasn’t a factual one, but more generic in terms of “what makes someone adjust to a new environment or change” There wasn’t a right or wrong sentence in there, it was all subjective, but I could not see that perspective from where I stood and it all boiled down to two things:
1. Will I be able to speak without stammering?
2. Can I last the entire 4 minutes?
The day came and I dressed just a bit more carefully. Within the limits of the uniform and school rules and within the allowances of how my parents would let me leave the house. I was nervous, but I was determined to make it through the minutes. Somewhere in a little corner of my head I knew what I was going to say, and I just knew I’ll be able to pull it through. I just needed to cross the first few lines and not let anyone’s reactions, actions and expressions distract me.
So I got called and I stood in front of the class on a small “stage”. With a paper in hand, ultimately which will become a scroll and will be crushed and moist with my sweaty palms, and feet stuck together in my gleaming white canvas shoes, I stared back at the 30 pairs of eyes fixed on me.
I started feebly, croaking through the introduction and I smiled, laughed apologetically and embarrassingly, until I met my friend’s eyes. She smiled and then grinned encouragingly.
That was all I needed.
It wasn’t just enough or important that I had faith in me, it was very important a friend had faith in me. Not anyone, but a dear friend.
I remember my voice getting stronger, words flew out in the clearest of diction and fluency and before I knew it, I was on a roll. Thoroughly enjoying myself, and I even paced the floor while I spoke. Somethin I did not practice. Then something else happened.
I said something funny. It was a question aimed at the general class, and I quipped on how we were all comfort creatures and we resisted change naturally coz it was the right thing to do, especially coz we were teenagers. (it was obviously much more funnier than how I wrote it)
My teacher burst out laughing. She was a strict lady. She laughed. Soon, the rest were giggling and I had a class full of 15 year olds laughing not at me but for what I said.
I remember smiling and losing my bearing for just a bit. I stopped talking and caught my breath. I could hear my heart in my ears, I could feel the sweat on my palms, and I could feel the tips of my ears become hot. I was pretty positive my voice faltered and trembled at the excitement of it all.
I had to end it. I lost track of my notes, but it seemed like what I had to say didn’t matter anymore. It was a complete coup. I won. I spoke. I engaged the audience, made my stiff upper lip teacher laugh, and I was a success.
Walking down the corridor next day was like walking on soft cumulus clouds. I did arrive. I felt complete. Like I had another armor on me, making me feel cozy and protected. There was a happiness and satiety that I never thought I would achieve or sense. I liked being known, for the right reasons that I considered a step-up.
As an adult, I now address gatherings of fairly large numbers and I can confidently say I can talk my way through any of them. It’s not something that came naturally and by birth, but it took an effort and am glad that all it took was that one spark and nudge in my head to “need” to be known better.
Once the “want” translates to a “need” a lot of things fall into place. Just like that, like parts of a puzzle.
PS: Part 1 of a series on Facing Fears. My personal account of the numerous little achievements which enabled me to face apprehensions and fears growing up and continue to face as an adult.
Rads lives in the suburbs of Washington DC along with her husband, three kids and
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