Thursday, August 6, 2009

Give Me That Microphone

Growing up I had an absolute horror of public speaking. It was so vicious that I intentionally let my grades droop at the end of middle school to avoid any possible chance of being chosen to give the graduation speech. The thought of standing up in the school gym, in front of the students of my small, insular, mostly supportive school was beyond terrifying. I was also the kid who could only mouth the words when singing ( in large groups) at assembly and I tried to get permission to take a shower in my clothes after gym. I was generally thwarted by life. My father was chosen to give the guest speech to my class and I had to get up and introduce him. He added insult to injury by playing a drum and asking the whole room to chant with him in Yoruba. Wince, hands over eyes, hide under the stage.

As I have aged my ability to be embarrassed by anything anybody else does has been worn down by the wild unpredictable whims of my loved ones ( with the exception of my grandmother's love of using loud french as a secret language to talk trash about other people in public- somehow " stupide" never seems to be as hard to decode as it should be). I have come to enjoy my father's willingness to sing, dance, shout, and do martial arts while also giving a slide lecture. I have come to join the rest of the family in our loud, competitive story/joke/outrageous lie telling. I may even have become one of the loudest tellers of myth and hyperbolic truth. I have also grown much less fearful of individual performance, thanks to an incident at the registry when my skirt elastic gave way while I was holding a baby and a toddler. Maintaining dignity in granny pants without losing my active toddler, dropping my baby, or losing my place in line was instructive.

Perhaps one reason I have learned to keep talking, or walking, or whatever I need to be doing is that I have rosacea. When I am hot, angry, passionate, or have eaten spicy food, or anything I am allergic to I turn bright red, not just my cheeks but my throat and chest. I am a teacher, and opportunities to be hot, angry, or passionate abound on any given day. Wearing a turtleneck up over my nose all day gets old after a while. I learned that if I just kept on talking and moving and making sense, a little, that I could in fact live through it. And I learned that the less I cared what I looked like, or what other people thought about me, the less often I flushed in public.

Oddly though my ability to hold it together in my classroom did not carry over to less performance anxiety in other settings. I can keep the conversation moving forward in my own space, or with my own family, but put me in a new group and I am as shy as I was when I was three. But then recently a good friend asked me to go with her to an open mike event and just check it out, as she was considering reading some of her creative writing. I went with her and listened as people from my community told stories, sang, rapped, read random passages from books, joked, and ranted. I felt a strange affinity for these people, most of them strangers. I wanted to try it.

The next time my friend and I both signed up. We were very nervous. We smoked cigarettes. My bladder behaved as if I was nine months pregnant. I coughed, and wheezed, and trembled. But when it was time to just do it I got up and told a story without notes and words came out of my mouth, words that made some sort of sense. I felt so dizzy with basic fear while I did it, but then I felt a wave of ease when I finished. And then the next week I did it again, only this time I read something I wrote. And this time I did not feel shakey, or incontinent and I was able to stay in my head while I did it, so I can actually remember what I said. I was also able to pay better attention to other people because I was not so caught in fear of my own potential failure.

I am going to keep doing this- and move to combine things I have written with stories I have always loved to tell. I am going to write new work that is specifically designed for performance live. Perhaps, like my father, I will add some music and dance and singing, but perhaps not.


  1. Lovely post. My mother also thinks that speaking appalling French very loudly is a secret language to denigrate strangers in, and it's especially ghastly as her vocabulary is sketchy, to say the least, so she frequently inserts English words thus making it completely decipherable to the objects of her derision. Cringe. Favourite place to do this is ENGLAND where most people learn French at school and speak it better than her. DIE.
    I commend you on your open mike session. I wish I could be there to hear your stories. xo

  2. Further proof that we were raised by the same crazy tribe. My other grandmother used very sketchy Spanish, not as a secret language, but in an attempt to command people to do her bidding. If she wanted the table cleared in a restaurant she would say " Vamanos Los platos de la mesa" which I think just encourages the plates to get up and dance away on their own.