Beads of sweat began to collect on my forehead, as snickers of laughter echoed throughout the classroom. I opened my mouth to speak and a staccato of ‘buh’s’ shot out. ‘Buh-buh, buh-buh, b-bonjour’. Any confidence I had, disintegrated. And I trudged through my three-minute French presentation, facing for countless times my worst enemy – my stutter.
As I spoke, I could the feel the eyes of my classmates cutting to pieces any remains of my confidence. Even those who usually dozed off during presentations looked my direction, as if waiting to see when I would stutter next. Midway through, I hazarded a glance toward my French teacher. Usually kind and supportive, his face was draped with the initial stages of a frown. ‘This is going terribly’, I thought. My thoughts turned into anguish, and helplessly, I stumbled onward. When the presentation was over, my mind tried to block out what had just happened, but the damage to my confidence had been done. I wondered why this experience felt so awful. After all, stuttering was nothing new to me. Any time I was forced to speak in front of others, I would have to do battle with it. In French class, my worst class, I almost always lost. But even then, this was a new low. After talking to my parents about it, I realized I was disturbed by the fact that this was the worst my stuttering had ever been, and the worse it became, the more non-existent my confidence -I was caught in a relentless downward spiral.
During that time, my brother was volunteering with the Red Cross, and overheard that the organization was looking to reach out to schools in the Ottawa area, hoping to re-expand its Christmas season Poinsettia Campaign through school-wide fundraisers. Suddenly, here was an opportunity to make a positive difference in my community. For as long as I could remember, Christmas had been my favourite holiday – I always loved going with the family to pick up a poinsettia and Christmas tree from the local store. And going around with friends selling poinsettias to students and teachers sounded awesome. Moreover, after asking around, it turned out that the Poinsettia Campaign was an old school tradition that had died out a few years earlier. Plenty of good reasons to take on this opportunity, and yet I was caught in a mental tug-of-war. ‘It’ll be fun to do with friends – but you’re going to have to speak at school assembly – but you’ve always loved Christmas – but you’re going to have to speak at school assembly – but you enjoy fundraising – you’re still going to have to speak at school assembly’. While in the midst of my contemplation, my brother entered my room, surprised to find me sitting on my bed with a blank expression on my face. After I told him about the opportunity and my speaking-related concerns, he argued to me that I would ultimately enjoy the experience very much. I still wasn’t too convinced, but reluctantly decided to move forward with the initiative.
The night before the first school assembly announcement, I rehearsed my speech at least a hundred times. Every time I stuttered on a word, I changed it to an easier one. By the time I had finished, my voice was nearly hoarse from practicing. But I had precisely crafted a stutter-friendly speech that would last a grand total of twenty-five seconds.
Then came presentation day. The chaotic sounds of hundreds of students and faculty filled the hall where school assembly was held each week. The first portion of school assembly is still a blur in my memory. All I remember is nervously fumbling around with my cue card, looking up at the projector screen every now and then to see how many presentations were left until mine. All the while, feelings of doubt filled my mind – ‘they’re going to laugh’, ‘you don’t have what it takes’, ‘you’re just not ‘that person’’. When my turn finally came, I shimmied through crowds of students onto the stage and walked to the podium accompanied by the two friends I had recruited to organize the campaign. My hands were ice cold and probably a little purple from lack of blood flow, and my stutter felt ready to ruthlessly embarrass me in front of the entire school. I was the last to present of the three of us. I walked up to the podium and took a deep breath, and got ready for the word staccatos to shoot out like they had in French class. But the weirdest thing happened – I spoke fluently. Word after word flowed off my tongue without a problem, and a moment later, the audience’s applause rang in the air.
Over the following four weeks, I presented three more times, opting to do so alone each time. The night before the final presentation, my brother once again walked into my room. This time, he was rather confused. He expected that I would be furiously reciting and re-writing my speech, but instead the lights were off and I was sound asleep, brimming with confidence.
After this experience, life around me continued as normal, but the change I had undergone was unmistakable. Rather than avoiding anything that remotely involved public speaking, I began to embrace these opportunities. I started to actively search for ways in which I could take initiative. I had always been passionate in several school activities, ranging from cross-country and badminton to molecular modelling and the school musical. I gradually took on more leadership positions in each of these activities, and each time, my confidence soared. At the end of this past year, I decided to apply for the school’s ultimate position of social responsibility and leadership – student prefect. The decision held enormous personal significance, as it epitomized the marked change I had undergone since that time in French class a year earlier. Not only do prefects have to speak in front of the school frequently, they are expected to be leaders of the student body and ambassadors for the school. None of these things I would have dared to do a year ago – not only did I have the stutter, but I simply didn’t see myself as having what it took to be ‘that person’. The only difference now? Confidence. I believe others at my school had noticed the change as well, since ultimately with their support, I was selected as a prefect.
In hindsight, I am in awe at the amount of change a year can entail. I had been caught up in a terrible cycle in which my stutter sucked my confidence, and the Poinsettia Campaign was the exact opportunity I needed to break out of it. Speaking in front of the school and coordinating the sale of poinsettias showed me I could excel in positions of leadership. That crucial boost in confidence enabled me to pursue other leadership opportunities, to realize I could make a positive difference, and to once and for all, do away with the notion that I couldn’t be ‘that person’. In the meantime, I noticed that the more confident I became, the less I stuttered. And while my stutter still lingers to this day, I have chosen not to allow it to affect me. What happens now if I stutter? A split-second of embarrassment, but that’s it.
Now, with school resuming in a week, I look forward to that first French class presentation. I am eager to see what a whole year of growth in confidence can do. Ultimately with or without this stutter, I feel the sky is the limit. So to all those out there who continue to feel anguish or low self-esteem because of their stutter, I implore you to take that first step towards overcoming the fear of speaking. This definitely entails getting out of your comfort zone and speaking up in front of others, but that aside, can take on a myriad of different forms. Maybe it’s delivering a toast at the next party, or asking a question for the first time in your lecture hall, or, as in my case, speaking up in front of your school. Regardless of the situation, I assure you it will be well worth it.
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