It was for the sake of my own composure last Friday morning that I frantically clambered for something to clear my agitated mind.
As I nervously paced back and forth within a small, secluded nook that I had arbitrarily chosen off to the side of the library — usually a quiet, modest snippet of the Lake Forest High School scenic repertoire — I couldn’t grapple with the fact that in merely minutes, I would make my way to the center of the room and come to stand alone in front of two hundred people.
This figure, interestingly enough, wasn’t exactly a ballpark estimate; in sheer desperation, my idea as to what could pass for a “distraction” was to count the number of chairs that would soon be pointed toward me.
Who knows why this was the remedy to pop into my head? Even if I turned to jello, I could at least go on to attest that I had been facing two sections of five stacking chairs deep and ten wide, with some additional sofas — modeled in an appropriately familiar, lounge-like fashion for the all-day speaker event, as all TEDx programs are — arranged so close to the stage that the people sitting in them could probably see my legs shaking.
For the time being, my confidence in my counting ability gave me merciful — albeit brief — consolation amidst pressure; I would have to follow Jack Bailey’s fascinating yet equally intimidating elaboration on string theory, tonally equated to a walk in the park. After I wrapped my talk up, I would soon be replaced on the stage by Antoinette Pompe van Meerdervoort who, in six minutes — and I’m not kidding you — planned to play the clarinet, tap dance, and lecture about math. The last time I saw her before being called up to the mic, she was debating out loud whether she could give the audience a real show and tap dance while playing her instrument.
Expectations were high, to say the least. For good measure, I tacked on my estimate for the number of New Media students that would be recording the talk, bringing my total up to the aforementioned two hundred.
Unfortunately, the revelation that this was perhaps the WRONG way to go about things was rather delayed. You diligent readers can probably already guess at what moment this dawned on me.
I wish I had a better story to tell those two hundred people in retrospect, having awkwardly stared into just about every one of their eyes during those six or seven minutes between 11:10 and 11:20. I wish I could say that I had something spark through my head, some blinding prophecy that surrendered my ability to speak at that particular moment, some ray of illustrious wisdom that I could not verbally express even within the widest reach of my mortal power.
Or some excuse that just sounded cool.
But nah. My brain just kinda flatlined.
Maybe my reassuring friends are right, and maybe I didn’t slip up as bad as I thought. I won’t submit the reader to a full serving of self-deprecation and blabber on about how awful I did, because maybe, in the disorienting core of… whatever that was, I just didn’t fully grasp the reality of what actually unfolded.
I will say, however, that it sure felt like I stood in silence for a hefty thirty seconds. At least before abandoning the entire second half of my prepared speech, wrapping up my time slot with a clunky, improvised sentence or two, and hastily making — as they say in the show business — an abrupt exit stage left.
I’ve found that embarrassment is a mental plague, in that sense. Does it even exist on a larger scale of human thought? Anger begets anger, sadness begets sadness, and so on and so forth. I have yet, however, to find an incident where my self-consciousness has directly elicited some unifying response from its beholders. True, some of my mistakes have led me to be laughed or yelled at, but most often, my emotions anticipate some wave of exacerbating pity that never really comes. As I timidly shuffled into my computer science class after the anticlimactic tumble of my semi-presentation, it quickly occurred to me that no one would turn their head to guffaw upon my arrival. It was a bit irrational of me to think that one would; in fact, it was likely that not one of the twenty or so students in my fifth period class had witnessed (or had the free period to witness) what I had confirmed to be the most humiliating minutes of my life since kindergarten.
I am no stranger to these accidents; I’ve had many of them in my eighteen years here. One might expect me to have gotten used to them, but believe it or not, none of them has failed to keep me awake at night, barring me from any hope of going to school with dignity the next day.
And here I was, just thirty minutes after my public self-destruction, surrounded by no one who would think differently if I had just gotten back from the bathroom.
A wise man tracked me down later that day and told me what he had once learned from another wise man by the name of Richard Rohr who, in his book Falling Upward, speaks of praying for a moment of humiliation every day of his life. I can imagine that he did not tell me this because it was obvious that I had screwed up but because it was obvious that I hadn’t been happy about it.
When I walked out of the library with my head hung low, I was mad. And it showed.
Many times I’ve heard advice along the lines of, “embarrassing moments are what you make of them.” Only recently has it become apparent to me that that sentence is what you make of it, too.
There will surely come to be a glum version of the narrative told above in my future, but only if I let it. Besides, who would want to hear it? As with the majority of my perils with embarrassment, the funnier ones are healthier for both ends of the story.
In the case in which you didn’t make it to see my speech (or you attended the event with sound-cancelling headphones and a cardboard box over your head to prevent you from seeing or hearing anything awry with my routine), well… no one’s saying that you have to keep reading. After all, you may still possess a passable image of me, and say, isn’t there a Friday Five you can check out anyway?
Aw, who am I kidding? I’m not so special; someone needs this out more than I need to keep it in. Those embarrassing moments of mine I hinted at earlier? Here’s a couple of them:
- As four-year-olds happen to be quite limited in comprehending scientific demonstrations more advanced than mixing cornstarch in water, the kids in my preschool were assigned to collect a plant for our brief biology unit and bring it in. There, it would be put on display and allowed to grow in our room such that we could bask in the splendor of our “creation.” As if to challenge the over-simplification of this task, neither I nor my parents noted that this resting location would lie in a dark, crowded corner that no natural light could reach. On the bright side (no pun intended), it was fairly easy for me, along with my friends and teachers, to distinguish my plant from the rest of the group, given that it was (1) a giant sunflower towering over the tiny little ferns that the other students had supposedly knew to buy per instinct and (2) within two days, it was the only one that was as dead as a doorknob.
- During recess on the playground one afternoon, I noticed that a group of girls were huddled around the slide a couple of feet from the pile of wood chips in which I was sitting. I can remember not so much wanting to impress them as much as feeling the need to inform them of my durable (yet nonexistent) physical build. Hence, I decided to start “casually” doing a couple of sit-ups as a part of my impromptu work-out, just to see if they might notice. About two repetitions in, one of the girls glanced in my direction and called over, “that’s not how you do a sit-up,” indicating that only my head was leaving the ground.
- I was dismayed to find out one day in kindergarten that we would be writing down our observations of a basket of apples based on all five of our senses; it was the taste testing component that churned my stomach, for there was no food I loathed more as a child than the round, red fruit (quite honestly, I much preferred broccoli). By the time my classmates had downed at least four apples, my three-count “starter pack” remained untouched on my desk. Seeing this, my teacher persuaded the class to start chanting my name for encouragement. I’m not sure what her philosophy on the matter was (educationally-endorsed peer pressure?), but for one reason or another, I took a sizable bite out of my granny smith. The applause that erupted as a result was quelled shortly thereafter — the bite didn’t exactly stay down for long, if you catch my drift (the teacher’s assistant spent about five minutes cleaning my mess up off the carpet floor).
- For a social studies project, us first-graders were put in charge of coming in to class dressed up as a historical figure of our choice. After a period of research (the extent of which involved a brief search for “cowboys” on the web), I had been eager to share of Annie Oakley’s valiant sharpshooting talent when upon entering the room in costume, I was informed that Annie Oakley was indeed a woman. I would discover years later that it’s quite alright for a man to dress up as a woman if he should please (especially if it’s one as admirable as Annie Oakley), but as this wardrobe decision was clearly unintentional on my part, the teasing material was too golden for the culturally oblivious boys of my age to refuse.
- Petrified by stage fright — a little foreshadowing, perhaps? — I pleaded with my teacher to excuse me from the upcoming winter play. As she could see that I was a bit wary about the whole ordeal, she promised me to issue my omission as subtly as possible. A couple of days later, students rushed to snag a look at the newly released list of casting credits, broadcast on the bulletin board of the main school hallway. It was almost too inevitable that, in the margins off to the side of the ACTORS and CREW columns, there was one unconventionally penciled-in marking with a single header: AUDIENCE MEMBER. I was the only name under it.
- Upon sitting back down into my pew after receiving the Communion at the foot of my church’s altar (a portion of the Sunday mass in which members file down the central aisle to get a wafer-looking edible placed into their hands), I perhaps stated a bit too loudly that the offering had served as a good snack. Later, my dad would explain to me that Catholics considered this bread to be holy and that everyone within a three-person radius of my seat had heard me refer to what they believed to be the body of Jesus Christ as a Dorito.
- I can’t remember what pair of exercise shorts I could possibly have been wearing that was two sizes too big for me in the fifth grade, but regardless, they failed to stay up during a particularly exerting session of P.E. (if my peers had not already known the color of my underwear, they became aware then). It was only until the end of the school year that I became convinced that the Day of the Faulty Pants had downgraded to water under the bridge. This comfort was swiftly robbed of me when, flipping through the signatures section of my yearbook, I noticed that a girl who had been in my gym class had scribbled in, “HAGS btw we should probably remember to get you a belt haha.” (It’s important to note that this comment was in good heart, as the girl later approached me and asked if I had taken what she had written to be funny.)
- My experience with baseball has been one of the Magnificent Recurring Tragedies of my childhood as a poorly coordinated youth. You’d think that, after the many blunders stemming from my own hopelessness as an athlete, the official baseball overseers of the universe (if there are any) would softly urge me to join an activity in which I would pose a lesser danger to myself, perhaps crocheting. A list of these aforementioned incidences would be enough to make a novel of its own (in my one moment of spotlight as a pitcher, I somehow managed to throw the ball behind me).
- However, in the spirit of this article, I will allow my audience to indulge in one baseball moment in which, during a clinic in an aircraft-hanger-sized gym — what I now know as our school’s field house — I was told to play catch with one of my teammates to warm up. For the life of me, I could not throw the ball anywhere else but directly at a precise spot five feet on the ground ahead. I must have done this twenty times before a coach walked over to me, clapped me on the back, and in the most pristinely cliched voice of a bro chuckled, “You know what I think of to get my mind out of a funk? Girls! Try that, buddy!” I had no clue what this meant, but that didn’t change the fact that the fifty other athletes in the clinic not only saw me continue to flop the ball by what they could only figure to be some demonic possession, but they also likely took mental note that my mind must have been writhing around in a bunch of vaguely nasty thoughts while I was doing it.
- In entering the ring for an award opportunity issued to eighth graders in their final months of their time in middle school, I was informed to write a speech and give it before a committee who would judge the applicant on their character. I figured that I would talk about a week I took off of my rigorous summer schedule of relaxing by the pool a few years earlier to draw a pretty cool comic book. Curious as to why the panel members either seemed puzzled by my speech or looked as if they were suppressing grins, I reread the application form, which mentioned that (1) the speech was to be about a positive impact we had made in someone else’s life and that (2) this usually involved some kind of community service and not, unfortunately, drawing cartoons in one’s free time (it was at this point that I remembered that the previous winner of this award had giving his speech on how he had literally taught a blind person how to sail).
- Elated to have received a call-back after applying for my first summer job as a camp counselor, I biked straight from the high school one afternoon to the Lake Bluff Park District building, where I met with the manager who was then sorting through the hirees. However, roughly five minutes into a very uneven interview, I found it odd that neither of us could find a time frame in which I could actually work in the position, nor could I provide credentials that I didn’t know were needed to qualify. It wasn’t until a couple of minutes later that I connected that I had applied for the wrong job.
Could I have done without some of these setbacks? Yes. Yes to the yes. They weren’t quite learning experiences in themselves. I doubt that even the most avid proponent of self-fulfillment would remark upon the soul-searching to be had in throwing up an apple onto the floor of your kindergarten class (in case you didn’t catch the drift from before).
In the same manner, I could’ve chosen what to keep with me that Friday. I could have remembered rushing up to Mr. Clegg’s room to turn in a homework assignment I had nearly forgotten about, saving me about ten sweet points of credit. I could have remembered challenging Landon to a series of two-player games on an archived NES system that was miraculously nestled in the corner of the innovation lab. I could have remembered getting my brain ever so gently blown by Mr. Bailey’s mind trip through multiple dimensions (but how is the fourth dimension time?! Would squares and triangles consider human beings to be their idea of time, then?!!?).
And I could have forgotten all about those six or seven minutes between 11:10 and 11:20.
I could have skipped ahead to the part when I lurched behind stage, when Matt walked over from the audience and gave me a much-needed hug, when Landon got my attention after running from the tech booth and tried signing in hand motions (as it was also the Day Of Silence) to apologize for a freak error in the soundboard, most likely one of the best parts of the talk. And I could have remembered walking straight to the library door, shamefully avoiding eye contact with all the amazing librarians, computer whizzes, and educators who had been generous enough to help me through the last two months of preparation. I could have remembered walking out of that room for no other reason than to grab a breath of fresh air.
Only one minor issue with that: something did happen.
And to pretend like it didn’t… well, that would be weird. Because if all I wanted to do was to show the part of me that I wanted people to see, then what was the point of me trying to do any of this talk at all?
You know what? I’ll keep those six or seven minutes in mind, when I walked up to the stage feeling a little apprehensive, gave the first half of an okay talk, blanked for one reason or another, messed up (as I do quite often), and got out of it the best way I could.
While many people that were present that morning weren’t given the choice to be a little confused, I had the choice of coming out relatively unscathed. It might have taken a while, but I chose to do so.
Once I say it out loud, it doesn’t sound that bad. However, it doesn’t hurt that I don’t have to say it in front of two hundred people.