Little did I know that my first experience in public speaking would be such a disaster. I froze. I didn’t know what to say. So I mumbled, “Thank you,” and ran off the stage. My stomach tied itself in knots. I could only look down. It seemed like hundreds of people were laughing at me. I was humiliated.
I was five years old. The scene was the annual kindergarten Christmas play at Portage Park School, a public school in Chicago. Except I didn’t know it. I was the emcee, except I didn’t know that either. All I knew was that for weeks I memorized some words about “the Christ child.” I had no idea what I was in for.
Forty-one percent of Americans list “Public Speaking” as their number one fear. “Death” comes in a distant second at 19%. Most of us would rather walk a tightrope blindfolded with our feet strapped together over a canyon filled with glass shards in gale-force winds than have to speak in public. We’d rather have to fend off a cougar. Or listen to American Idol’s Sanjaya. Or listen to Sanjaya while being eaten by a cougar.
So when I, without my knowledge, was selected to speak in public in front of hundreds of adults at the ripe age of five, it was a total miscarriage of justice, if not cruelty. The implications linger even today.
“Mom, why am I getting dressed up?” “For the school play, honey. You remember.” Play? Did she say play? Yeah baby!
Later that night… my teacher is speaking… I am in a strange place…
“Okay, Billy. Stand right here, and when the curtain opens, say your lines.”
“My mom said I was going to PLAY.”
“This is the play, honey.”
“Right. Good job. One more minute, and when the curtain opens say your lines.”
“Then can I play?”
Without warning the adults all went away. A rumbling, scraping sound distracted me. It was the power-curtain opening. I looked up. Then I looked down. Then I saw the normal American’s nightmare. Hundreds of people looking at me.
What the…? Where the….? Why the…?
My teacher hissed, “Say your lines.”
Some time ago Margi and I were hiking with some some friends and their kids. We came across a newborn deer (doe? fawn? heifer?… city boy, remember?). Smaller than a beach inner tube, it was curled up in tall grass. Though we were only a foot away, it remained perfectly still. Didn’t even twitch a muscle.
We looked, showed the kids, and quietly moved on. We explained that God taught the deer to stay very still when it was afraid so that it wouldn’t get noticed, because if it didn’t get noticed, it wouldn’t get eaten.
God taught me that too.
So, when hundreds of happy, clueless moms, dads, and grandparents stared at me with dumb smiles on their faces, I had a choice to make. Fight or flight. I did neither. I just froze like that baby deer. The universe shifted into another dimension. Time slowed down. My mind went to its happy place. My little hands clenched and unclenched. Sweat rolled down my back. A fly buzzed serenely in the distance. My eyes rolled to the back of my head.
“Billy, say your linessssss.”
Talking like a ventriloquist, through smiling lips, and clenched teeth, I queried, “What?”
“Say your lines! Say, ‘Welcome to Portage Park School.’”
“Welcome to Portage Park School.”
“We are glad you came to our Christmas play.”
“My mom said I could play.”
“Say it. We are glad…”
“We are glad…
At long last, I said all my lines. Yet even that was not enough; there was one indignity remaining.
“Go ahead and bow,”the voice whispered.
Bow? I vaguely remembered practicing this. There was an art to it. I had no appreciation for that art. I thought it was stupid. Place your right hand behind your back at hip level, palm out. Place your left hand on your belly button. Keep your hands flat and fingers together. Don’t just hunch over. Bend at the waist. Slooooowwwly. About thirty degrees. Return upright. Smile. All those hours of coaching and instruction flooded my mind. And my feelings of distaste for this archaic, class-conscious relic of a ritual. Oh wait, I was only five. Those are today’s feelings.
A whisper-shouted “Do it!” snapped me from my reverie.
I did it. It wasn’t elegant, but it did the trick. The audience of happy dumb faced people applauded. I needed no other cue. I ran offstage. My teacher collected me, and to my amazement and relief, was very kind. At least she tried to be. She said, “You did great, Billy. You just had stage fright.” Stage fright. Oh, Dear Teacher, thank you so much for hanging that placard around my consciousness. How I thank you for emblazoning the concept of “stage fright” across my spirit. Nice going.
[ASIDE: NEVER EVER point out to kids ANYTHING ODD, OR NEGATIVE about themselves. No labels. It will stick to them forever: You’re so tall, short, skinny, fat, different, shy, dumb, bad, stage fright, retarded… whatever. Just shut say something positive and shut your pie hole.] Sorry. Was I just venting there?
So began an auspicious career in public speaking.
I have never entered a pulpit or stood behind a lectern or given a toast or had to speak off the cuff without reliving the emotions of that day. Never. Fear grips me. Johnny Carson confessed to major stage fright before every show. I completely get that. Only my stage fright is deeply rooted in my childhood.
I teach my kids that courage means being afraid and doing it anyway. If you weren’t afraid in the first place, you wouldn’t need courage, right?
“Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’” Isaiah 41:10, NKJV.
I used to think that fear was a sign that I didn’t have faith. Now I know better. NOT ACTING is a sign that I don’t have faith. Fear is just an emotion. When God commands, “Fear not!” he’s not forbidding the emotion. He just telling us to not let fear dominate our lives.
Grace: God using a guy with stage fright to speak, teach, and preach the gospel to lots and lots of people.