Call it terror, stage fright, a panic attack. By anyone's terminology, I literally thought I was going to die. Or maybe I simply wanted to die, rather than proceed with my dismal fate. Sensing a lack of oxygen in my lungs, I began to quietly hyperventilate. Breathe, Kelly, breathe. For a split second, I wondered if this was how people felt at the very moment that they "lost it".
Ironically, to an outside observer, nothing unusual was happening. The scene was a college class in Japanese, on the day of their first oral quiz. Yet to me, a teenage girl with a paralyzing fear of public speaking, it might as well have been a national news interview. At least in that situation, Ted Koppell would have bailed me out.
I sat frozen on a wooden chair, too nervous to move, as I waited impatiently for my turn. As a high school student taking classes at Rutgers University, I was desperate to feel accepted by my college peers.
I stared at the Japanese book in front of me, silently reciting my mini-dialogue, although I already knew the lines by heart. Yet, in the presence of these "strangers" in the room, I felt scared. What if I made a mistake? What if I embarrassed myself? What the heck was I doing there? Anticipating a long semester among these students, I needed to prove myself.
Finally, the moment arrived. "Ma-san, your turn." I slowly walked up the aisle as if I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. When I reached the front of the classroom, I felt the stare of my fellow students looking back at me. As adrenaline surged through my body, I perspired and blushed. "How can I do this? How can I recite something in Japanese in front a bunch of college students when I'm too nervous to present a speech in front of my high school friends?" Yet, I knew I must do it, both to get an "A" in the course and to prove myself to my classmates. So many people, including my guidance counselor and biology teacher, had faith in me. Everyone I knew, especially my parents, expected me to succeed. I had to do it for them.
Finally, I took a deep breath and yelled out all the lines of my mini-dialogue, "Hajimemashite. Watashinonamaewa Kelly Ma desu. Dozoyoroshiku." In less than 30 seconds, it was over. I returned to my seat, accepting praise from people with whom I had never previously spoken. "Good job, Ma-san." What a relief! Looking back, I can't believe I was so paranoid about speaking in front of people. Why was I so afraid of the students in that class? They weren't monsters, just humans like me. Despite my academic success, I had managed to conceal my fear of public speaking in high school. I was confident and carefree among my long-time friends, yet incredibly insecure in a college environment. Ironically, that terrifying oral quiz (and panic attack) made me realize how crazy and isolated I had been. I had let my fear paralyze me, which kept me from pursuing my dreams.
These realizations lead to positive changes in my life. I began to speak with ease in front of large groups, leading class discussions, asserting myself, and earning better grades on oral presentations. With my newfound confidence, I became the captain of the math team and developed several leadership skills. Most importantly, I reached out to people, shedding my shyness and making new friends. After all, people aren't monsters: with a little kindness, many became good friends. In my Japanese class, I discovered several kindred spirits in the most unlikely setting. Although I may lose touch with them at the end of this semester, I will treasure every second I spent in that classroom.