The Speech

November 9, 2011
By , Basking Ridge, NJ
I had never been this afraid in my life. I was going to vomit or pass out. I knew it. I was going to do it right here, in front of all these people. Please, please, God, don’t let me do anything stupid. Make me sound intelligent. I don’t want to trip over my long black skirt. Palms sweating, heart racing, I climbed up onto the stage.

The lights were blinding. I couldn’t see the audience, but that offered me no reassurance because I knew that they could all see me. Everyone was looking at me; I was the focus of all their attention. I stood at the ancient oak podium and bent the microphone closer to my mouth. It made a gruesome screeching noise, like it belonged in a horror movie, not here on a huge stage in a sophisticated room, with all of those judges staring at me, their eyes beaming into me like invisible lasers. I opened my mouth, and I was ten years old again.

I stood up at the front of the room with my colorful poster board perched up behind me. I skimmed through my book, flipping the pages back and forth to keep my hands busy because I’m so nervous. The teacher was glaring at me from the back of the room. She hated me. I don’t know why. I’m usually a nice girl. I wish she’d like me. But she doesn’t. She won’t. I know that. She gave me a false smile, and that was my cue to begin my report.

I delivered my book report on “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” smoothly. I told the class all about the book, and some of the kids even looked like they were paying attention. It wasn’t bad to give my speech up here. I kind of liked it. Now the teacher would be forced to listen to me. I turned to my poster and kept talking.

That Friday, the teacher was giving back our grades on the book reports. I was so happy. I think that I did really well. I know that a lot of people don’t like talking in front of the class, but I didn’t mind. Everyone was nice and listened to me, or at least pretended to. Maybe this will be the one project I actually did well on.

The teacher put the paper on my desk. I liked to peer through the back of the paper and try to see what grade I got. I couldn’t tell this time, but I saw that the teacher wrote a lot on there. That’s probably a good thing. That means she really liked it. I was so excited that I dropped the paper on the floor in my excitement to pick it up. I bent down to pick it up and saw a big fat C on it.

My first instinct was to check the name on the paper. Maybe when I dropped it, someone else’s was on the floor and I accidentally picked up theirs. Nope. My name was written clearly in the upper right corner, in red ink, like blood. Trying not to cry, I looked at the comments that the teacher had so carefully written in red all over the green rubric. My project was fine. It was the presentation that I lost all my points on. She said that I made no eye contact, that I talked too quickly, that my presentation didn’t make sense, that I stuttered over my words, that I was too fidgety, and that I should have practiced my presentation before. I did practice! I wanted to shout at her. I practiced my presentation for hours and hours on Sunday, until my mom got tired of listening to it and told me to stop. So then I presented it to my dolls. I did practice this presentation. I’m not that horrible, am I? Well, if the teacher said it, I guess it must be true.

I closed it. I wasn’t ready yet. I really wasn’t. I was going to mess up and fall down like the horrible speaker I was. I’ve been terrified ever since. In middle school, I gave a persuasive speech about stem cell research, and I was so nervous that I threw up in the bathroom before class started, and when my name was pulled out of the hat to go first, I prayed for a fire drill. It was to no avail, because I had to go up there. I had a cold sweat and stood there like a statue. I delivered the speech like a robot. There was nothing charismatic about my speech, no hand gestures, facial expressions, or vocal inflection. It was all monotone. I got an A+ on the written report, and a B- on the speech.

I cleared my throat, buying time for myself. I gave a throaty cough even though I wasn’t sick. I twirled a piece of my hair around my finger a couple times until it was wound so tightly that I could feel my finger losing circulation. I unwound it and looked at my finger, which had taken on a slightly purple hue. I wonder how long I’ve been standing up here. It could have been five minutes, or it could have been for three seconds. Is everyone out there staring at me, thinking of me as the stupid one who got stage fright?

I realized that my eyes had adjusted and now I could see the audience. My blindness was only momentary. I saw the judges in the front row. No one looked irritated, so I mustn’t have been up here that long. One judge had square glasses and a severe haircut. Another looked as if they were to have a heart attack any second. The third was scowling at me. No one looked friendly. My mom was back in the tenth row. We made eye contact, and she gave me a smile, small but reassuring. Then I saw him in the front. He had a smirk on his face. I wanted to kill him.

For some reason, my teacher suggested that I go to this speech festival, this competition. She said that she had faith in me, and that out of all her students, I showed the most promise. I tried to tell her that I wouldn’t go, in fact, I did tell her that I was busy that day. But, she emailed my mother who thought that this was a great opportunity for me and she had already replied yes. I prepared every Wednesday after school, preaching to the vacant auditorium. The week before the competition, the teacher told me to come on Tuesday, so I could listen to the other student from our school that was going.

I sat and watched his speech. He was cocky and pompous, but you sure believed whatever he was saying while he stood up there. It was so easy for him, so natural. He had a stage presence. He owned it, the king of the auditorium, king of the words. My speech was awful in comparison. After I gave mine, he told me so.

“That was awful,” He commented.

I said nothing.

“Who even wrote that thing?”

I said nothing.

“I bet that on Saturday, you won’t even be able to give the speech. You’re too scared. With all those people in the auditorium, they’ll probably have to keep water backstage to revive you after you faint.”

I said nothing.

So he was right. I really was going to say nothing. I took a step away from the podium and watched his smirk grow bigger, bigger, bigger…

I changed my mind. I walked back up to that podium and started speaking. I gave my speech, and said it right to him. I kept talking and watch him stop smirking. That gave me more energy, and I launched into my speech with a little more vigor. I just kept going and going, and then I reached my conclusion. I realized that I liked it up here. Everyone was giving me their undivided attention. My words could move people. They have, they are, and they always will. I finished my speech. The room was silent for a moment.

“Thank you,” I whispered into the mike, and took a step down.

Oh no! I’ve made a fool of myself. No one is even applauding me. I wanted to make a notable speech today, but not in this way. I stepped off the podium, had almost reached the stairs to get off the stage when the room burst into applause. I turned back around and looked at everyone. I was getting a standing ovation. Even he was standing up. I was so happy that I almost started to cry. Twelve more speeches followed mine, but none received the response my speech did. At the end of the day, when the results were announced, I was the winner.

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