Wednesday, June 19, 2013

This one or that one?

I stood in the bathroom stall and watched my hands shake. The breakfast I had eaten in my dorm room was threatening to reappear and I gulped air like a fish jerked out of the water, trying to keep it down where it belonged. My breakfast, not the fish.

Speech 101 was a requirement in my course of study, which is a logical thing when you’re working toward a degree in teaching. Logical, maybe. But certainly not pleasant for young adults like I was at that age: socially inept, painfully shy, and generally miserable.

But there I was, in the cavernous bathroom of the red brick building on campus where the speech class met twice a week.


Hoping the sky would fall or someone called in a bomb scare, anything to postpone my agony.

No such luck, though. Dissidents never show up when you really need them, and the sky stayed stubbornly in place. I did end up getting the speech over with that day, at least for that one grade. I think this was where I also learned the trick that helped throughout college: volunteer to go first, because no one in the room would be listening to you. They were too busy wrestling their own demons to the ground as they anticipated standing in front of the class in terror. After my turn was over, however bad it was, I could sit and relax. (I didn’t listen to anyone else’s speech, either, but at least mine was OVER.)

I later took a popular public speaking course, only because my boss at the time suggested it, and I didn’t think it professionally wise to refuse him. That was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me, but I shook a lot during those days, too. I visibly trembled all over, including my voice and lips as I stood in front of the group. I know that surveys say that public speaking is one of the biggest fears most people have and I can attest to the sheer fright of it all.

All of this is strange to me in retrospect; I have made much of my living since then standing in front of people talking about a variety of things. I also learned that there is a difference in speaking to one’s peers and speaking to students. Sometimes the former is still intimidating.

But I have also learned something else.

Before I show up for a workshop or speech, I still dread it. The day arrives, along with an overall veil of angst, a sense of discomfort that takes me back to my college days. But once I stand in front of the group, whoever they might be, something happens to me. A switch is thrown somewhere deep inside me, and the gloom is gone. It feels as if I become someone else for that period of time. And it’s great. I enjoy myself. I enjoy the interaction between me and the people listening. I’ll admit that I enjoy being seen as someone worthy to hear.

The question is this: Which one is the real me? I still carry that shy, withdrawn person inside me. Sometimes she is the dominant personality. I’ve even been called a “party pooper” (actually, lots of times!), once very recently. But then an occasion arises where I must “perform.” Those of you who are aging to perfection along with me know that I even became a ballroom dancer, complete with a public performance thrown in for good measure. And I loved it. The energy associated with it is intoxicating.

So, which one is the real me? Did I finally let the true person out of hiding, or did I create a new persona to meet a need for my work?

And you thought aging meant this stuff got easier, right?

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.” -Dale Carnegie

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Breaking rules......

 It had already flipped as I rounded the curve but the back window shattered as the car came down on its roof and the crash was followed by an eerie silence. I pulled over and jumped out, phone in hand as I dialed 911. Another vehicle stopped and its driver joined me as I gave the dispatcher the location. We peered into the car, its wheels still spinning, but we heard nothing. As we walked to the other side, the one that wasn’t quite as smashed, we saw movement. The driver was a young woman, strapped into the car by the seat belt, and she was now hanging upside down, probably dazed and unsure of what had happened.

The man spoke to her, but only got whimpering in return. I don’t think she even knew where she was right then, much less that there was someone talking to her. It’s strange the things one’s mind does in a situation like this: all she seemed concerned with was the fact that her skirt, now pulled up around her waist, was exposing too much of her to strangers. She kept trying to pull it down, vainly of course. After all, she was upside down, hanging from the strap that probably saved her life. 

And her phone was in her hand. Had she picked it up after the car flipped or had she been using it at the time? We saw no blood, and she was moving quite a bit, struggling to free herself and get that errant skirt in place. More people had stopped but no one else came closer. Did they want to gawk or what? Are these the same people who slow down and create backups on the highway when they pass a bad accident, waiting to see….what? We asked if anyone had a knife so the seat belt could be cut.

The young man closest to us shook his head. “You should wait until rescue gets here, man. You’re not supposed to move her.”

You’ve read the articles in the media of schools that expel 5 year children for having a butter knife in their lunchboxes to spread their PB & J, right? Well, here was another example standing in front of me. Someone who hears a “rule” and applies it the same way in every instance, with no thought process accompanying it. It can be a school principal or teacher, a politician, a city council member, a parent.....or a bystander at an accident scene.

It’s happened to me before. One day, a student in my classroom began to have a seizure, and I knelt next to her and laid my hand on her arm to let her know that someone was there. Not to move her, or restrain her, or try to get her to “stop.” Just to offer human kindness in that moment, whether she was even aware of it or not. Suddenly, another teacher came shrieking through the connecting door. “DON’T TOUCH HER!! YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO TOUCH HER!!”  That woman berated me for days about that in front of my class and anyone else who would listen, seemingly incapable of seeing the situation for what it was at that moment. Of course I know about seizures and neck or back injuries and the fact that bystanders can do more harm than good sometimes.

But I also am a mature, thinking human being who is observant enough to assess a specific situation and make some judgments about how to proceed, even if it’s only to lay my hand on an arm to offer solace. I know that I’m not an expert in emergency situations; but I am an educated person who has a great deal of information in my head, as well as a heart that is capable of offering comfort to someone who is hurting in some way.

As it turned out, the young woman in the car was able to unsnap the seat belt herself, and she crawled out of the car just enough to straighten her clothes and sit up on the grass. I laid my hand on her head (no, I didn’t twist it or attempt to move her any more but I did let her know that she wasn’t alone), and told her that help was on the way, all would be fine. She appeared to be okay, but was still dazed. She was intent on making a phone call but was too disoriented to make that happen, and insisted she didn’t need any assistance from rescue, which I’m sure is normal under the circumstances. I’ve never flipped a car, so I’m only guessing here. And shortly after that, I left. I don’t know what happened to her, but I’m sure the whole experience was frightening for her. I hope she’s okay.

What I do know is that sometimes unthinking adherence to “the rules” stands in the way of common sense and humanity.

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
Dalai Lama