The beauty of third grade was that I was surrounded by people who were equally nerdy, awkward, and gifted. The things that eventually turned me into an extremely self-conscious middle school student were completely overlooked by my peers at that age. My eight-year-old self was a bucktoothed bookworm, complete with thick-lensed glasses and an obscene amount of random knowledge acquired by scouring editions of Encyclopedia Britannica, instead of going to sleepovers or pretending to be a princess. When my father would question me about what seemed to be the only two career choices in life—doctor or lawyer—I would regularly respond that obviously I would grow up and be both, since I was smart, and loved school.
But then I started singing at church. And playing the flute. And taking ballet lessons. Occasionally, I’d even take a break from swooning over my crush ( or crushes, depending on the week) in my journal to write short stories. I liked this creative side of myself, and true to the nature of a child my age, soon, I felt it necessary to share it with anyone who’d pay attention. Among the archives of my family’s home videos is a VHS containing “Day of the Princesses”, a horrifically boring play that I wrote and acted out with my sister, and forced my dad to sit through and film. There were no lines; the video is literally 20 minutes of us “acting” in complete silence. But if you’d let me tell it, all the creativity I had flowing through my veins was going to make me a huge star.
My confidence spilled over from home life into school life, where a spring concert was soon to be had. When a teacher asked for two volunteers to do a ballet dance as a part of a song the orchestra would be performing, I raised and waved my hand obnoxiously, and nearly squealed with excitement when I was picked. My partner was Elizabeth, who had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year. Our co-teachers had us watch a Charlie Brown video with a terminally ill character in an attempt to help our young minds grasp what she was dealing with.
Sweet-spirited and equally creative, Liz was a perfect second half to our duo. She made the choreography, and we practiced during music class, and sometimes at recess. A few days before the concert, though, I began to get overwhelmingly anxious at the idea of dancing in front of my peers and their parents, and considered backing out. However, my best friend, namesake, and only other black girl in the grade, Brittany, convinced me to stop being a chicken. On the day of the concert, as the audience trickled into the gymnasium, she even showed me how she’d written on her hands for me, for good luck: “Don’t freak out Brit!!!” graced each palm, thickly scrawled in black marker.
Unfortunately, my stage fright trumped any good vibes sent from Brittany’s hands. The orchestra began playing “Simple Gifts,” their first selection, and I stood frozen while Liz started to dance. A few bars into the song, I figured out my exit strategy. I exclaimed “I GOTTA PEE!” and bolted down the aisle between the two sections of parents and students, finding and locking myself in the girls’ bathroom. Under the fluorescent light, I attempted to take a page out of the many movies I’d seen, and pull myself together with a mirror pep talk. Soon enough, I heard the music stop, and roaring applause for the orchestra, and what had unexpectedly become a solo ballet performance.
I was eventually coaxed out of the bathroom by my best friend, my teacher, and my mother, who all assured me that there was nothing wrong with being afraid sometimes, and also that eventually I’d get over my stage fright. Eighteen years later, and take a wild guess at what I still haven’t managed to do?
I may not be over my fear completely, but I can manage it a bit, and I understand it very well. I’ve found that I’m least fearful when I cannot see my audience. In high school, this produced back-to-back stellar talent show performances in the darkness of the auditorium, and a shaky-voiced rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” at a full assembly of nearly 4,000 students in the brightness of the gymnasium. Now, when I sing before a visible audience—usually at church—I find a focal point that distracts me from the audience, or grasp the front of the choir stand, to keep my knees and voice from shaking.
As a comedy group performer in college, I did my entire first season of shows slightly buzzed, because otherwise I’d be too anxious to perform to the best of my ability. Eventually, affirmation from peers, and the lessened pressure that came with not having to perform alone, quelled my nervousness. Writing, which doesn’t require a performance or an immediate audience, should be easier for me to put out, but for me, sharing my words with the internet is the same as performing, and brings the same fear of criticism or embarrassment. Time, and the insistent prodding of good friends, are really the only reasons I’ve gotten to a point where I’m just comfortable enough to openly share what I write.
Deep down, I’m still that nervous, bucktoothed eight-year-old girl. Be right back; I gotta pee.