I was just eight months old when I started speaking. By that, I don’t mean broken words or phrases — I actually started talking in complete sentences. It’s funny how I turned out to be a nervous speaker now when I have spoken for a very long time.
It all started in my third grade.
I was appointed as the class representative, and I had to recite a poem at the annual school function. Being the kind of speaker that I was — unafraid and experienced, this task felt like a child’s play in my head. I started practising the eighteen lined poem by John Greenleaf Whittier two months before the program. I rehearsed to the extent that I could recite the poem in reverse order: stringing the words from back to front. Even as an eight-year-old, I liked owning perfection — a difficult habit to let go of even now.
On ‘the day’, I buzzed with excitement, energy and a kind of valour new to me. I couldn’t wait to step on the stage.
When I finally stood in front of the crowd of three thousand people in my crisp and spotless white dress, I started the recitation. I nailed the pronunciation, the gestures, the tone. At the twelfth line, I noticed my parents in the crowd — beaming at me proudly. Seeing their beaming faces, I paused and smiled back at them.
That one inadvertent pause has forever been etched in my brain.
It took me three seconds to realize that I had forgotten my trail thoughts and words. In that innocent moment, everything turned out not how I had planned. I couldn’t remember a word from the line I had just recited before. I tried repeating the poem, but my brain seemed to have shut down in its own accord.
I felt my cheeks burn, my throat constrict and my eyes water. I could hear my heart drumming in my ears. I felt ashamed — a feeling unknown to me. I looked at the crowd again and met my parents encouraging faces. But this time, I didn’t return the smile.
Suddenly, the lights felt brighter, the room felt wider, and the temperature felt hotter. I looked behind at my teacher, who stood near the curtain. She smiled and encouraged me to move on and gave the first of the following sentence as a probe — pushing me to continue.
But I could not.
I could not hear her; I could not figure out; I could not think.
At that moment, I almost gave up. I was mortified, scared, lost and angry at myself. I hated losing. For one last time, I begged my brain to remember a word — anything at all. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I remembered the last line of the poem:
“It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”
I was relieved that I remember something of it all. I read that line slowly and on top of my voice, not giving away the sadness and disappointment I felt. If that humiliation was not enough, the worst happened when I stepped away from the mic.
As I descended the stairs, I fell flat on my face in front of hundreds of parents, classmates, and friends. For the first time in my existence, I felt like a loser — someone imperfect. My classmates in the front row sniggered. For the second time that day, I almost gave in and bawled my eyes out, but I didn’t.
I felt movement among the crowd and over a thousand pairs of eyes on me. I knew my parents would reach any second to pick me up from the ground. Before they did that, I sucked in my tears, mustered all courage I had left inside me and left the floor. As I stood up, I dusted my dress, smiled at the audience and exited as gracefully as I could at that moment.
The courage to re-enter and finish what you started defines you
When I look back, I realize that no matter how sad and humiliated I was then, that day changed my perception of life, perfection, humility, failure, and success. When I think about both the mishaps that happened that day, the humiliation of forgetting always outweighs the other accident. However, both the accounts taught me one of the biggest life lessons: the courage to re-enter and finish what I started.
Our re-entries define us; they remind us of the courage that allowed us to once continue despite the mind-numbing humility and fear.
Despite forgetting a significant portion of the poem, re-entering the recitation and finding the willpower to continue with whatever I could recall was unquestionably challenging; and so was re-entering my head and focussing on my rationale to keep my sanity in check as an eight-year-old.
It took me a long time to realize that fear dominated both the events: fear of how people would perceive me, fear of failing at something, fear of being imperfect — and all pointed towards the urge to quit.
Over the years, I have repeatedly seen the reflection of my fear in others and have realized something — fear of failure and fear of quitting are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without another. Yet, one strives to be ‘fearless’.
Being fearless would mean ‘to unlearn’ fear — and that’s impossible. It’s like trying to unlearn how to breathe or how to feel. You cannot unlearn something that you are born with. Perhaps that’s why only a few people go very far ahead in life — they stop trying to unlearn fear; instead, they learn how to act despite fear.
Every time I come close to quitting, I find myself back on the stage all over again with three thousand pairs of eyes fixated on me and remind myself:
“It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”