I wonder if anyone who grew up shy and reserved ever forgets how terrifying it was to be forced to speak in front of an audience.
I haven’t forgotten. It didn’t matter whether it was a fourth-grade book report, an assignment in a college speech class or some random event that required me to step in front of other people and talk out loud. I never got comfortable. I always felt my legs would give out. I heard my voice begin to break before even said a word. I usually spoke so softly that the insensitive louts in the back row shouted, “Speak up. Can’t hear you.’’ That made the shaking worse, and I spoke even more softly. Then I’d hear, “Hey, don’t mumble.’’
From early school days up to today, I’ve marveled at people who seem relaxed in front of an audience. Can anyone truly be as at ease as this guy appears, I’d wonder. Does this woman really feel no fear at all? I’d look at those self-assured speakers and I’d ask myself, are we even the same species? I still wonder if those people comfortable with public speaking started out that way or if they leaned to be at ease in that situation. I watch good speakers closely, trying to spot a magician’s trick that lets them function in a setting that would turn me into a quivering blob on the floor.
I’m pretty sure the only reason I made it through grade-school book reports was because I learned that Mike, my best friend, was completely socially inept and tongue-tied, too. His knees actually knocked when he tried to recite a poem in third or fourth grade one time. When the teacher suggested mildly that he take a deep breath and enunciate clearly, he looked back to where I sat, stark terror in his eyes. That was the first time I realized I wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just me.
That’s supposed to be liberating. For Mike and me, it meant we could talk about our fear, even laugh sometimes, as we walked home. That helped, away from school. It didn’t do much when it came time to speak in class again.
Sharing our terror, we somehow made it through high school. At South Dakota State we found ourselves in the same first-year German class. Our professor was a Yoda-like woman named Hilda Hasslinger. We called her “The Frau’’ but not to her face. Somewhere on campus a language library bears her name.
She walked into the classroom that first day as if the Force were with her, plopped a battered, bulging briefcase on the desk and started rattling off words in a foreign language. Mike jabbed me with an elbow. “Is she speaking German?’’ “Guess so,’’ I whispered. “Oh, man, we’re in real trouble,’’ he whispered back.
The Frau very much liked it if we responded to her questions in German. Well, sure, what did we expect? But for Mike and me, it was grade-school book reports all over again. Even when we knew the words, we’d mumble uncertainly. The Frau had a marvelously effective glare, and she knew how to use her silence to force us, eventually, to speak up and try again. We emerged from every class period drenched in perspiration.
The time we had to recite children’s stories in German was the worst. She assigned me “Rumpelstiltskin,’’ which I memorized word by word and recited in my room for hours at a time. I had it down. But when I stood to recite, I got the shakes. I sweat buckets, my voice broke on every other syllable and I had to grab both side of my desktop a couple of times. I told that fairy tale, though. I told the whole thing. In German, too. The Frau nodded when I finished.
“I thought you were going to fall over,’’ Mike said as we left the room. “Me, too,’’ I said. “I thought maybe I did.’’
I passed the course, but I didn’t retain much German. I think I could ask for the location of a rest room, but not in front of a crowd of people.