The Gift of Conversation

Arianna Otoo ’21 at Episcopal High School; Permanent Facilitator for TableTalk Episcopal’s 2018–19 school year

It was May 24th, 2018, the day of my birthday, and the first time I would be facilitating a TableTalk event. These were two milestones, both equally terrifying, as I could accept neither the fact that I was actually turning fifteen, nor the fact that I would be guiding conversation on couches, with people I didn’t know beforehand. The idea of starting and cultivating conversation in a group of people I wasn’t familiar with was my worst nightmare as an introvert, and as E Block started rolling around, the ball of dread resting in my stomach only intensified.

The bell signifying the end of the period rang, though as I walked over to the couches located directly in front of March Library, the staff member who was supposed to be facilitating with me was nowhere to be seen. This very moment is when I began to panic, questioning greatly if I would actually be able to facilitate the CampusCouches. Anything but confident, I ultimately willed myself to sit down on the brown leather of the couch, and immediately opened my browser, typing “conversation starters” into the search bar. After selecting the first result that came up and choosing one of the relevant topics from the list, I waited for at least one person to show up, so that I wasn’t just sitting alone on a couch, awkwardly.

Five minutes had passed, and the staff member who had signed up to facilitate with me still wasn’t there, so I became even more anxious, if it was even possible at that point in time. Ten minutes into the time slot, I spotted two people walking out of the dining hall, and I could hear them talk about the bags of chips all over the couches, questioning whether or not to take some. Realizing that this was my chance, and that I had to embrace the task given to me, I lifted one of the bags of chips, gesturing towards it, and called out to the students, “Hey, do you guys want some chips?” They politely declined, and walked away, leaving me with the cold feeling of rejection, and still, no one to converse with. I was truly shocked at the fact that I had actually mustered up the courage to call out to the kids, people I didn’t know, though with their polite decline, I was feeling more dejected than I was determined, twiddling my thumbs with every last drop of patience I had.

Arianna Otoo ’21 attending a TableTalk dinner at Episcopal High School

I always viewed facilitators as those who possessed the leadership qualities to be able to not only guide conversation, but make everyone feel as though their voice was heard.

Undeniably lacking a variety of social skills, there wasn’t a bone in my body that felt I could achieve the task placed before me, and that scared me.

Personally, I can’t handle the idea of failure, giving a bad impression to someone, or even making a mistake while speaking. So, instead of introducing myself to new people and running the risk of making a mistake, I simply didn’t and remained safe in my close circle of friends.

Looking up again, I spotted something that lit up my face undeniably: someone I actually recognized! As I adamantly beckoned the girl over, I felt a sense of relief wash over me, and despite her hesitation, I knew that she would join me. The momentum that this action caused, and the confidence I gained made a huge impact, as immediately afterward, I saw a staff member appear! Unfortunately, it still wasn’t the one who was supposed to be facilitating with me, though I was thankful for his unprompted decision to sit on the leather couches and join us.

Since it was also the week before final exams (yikes), our small group of three naturally started talking about concerns about finals and the stress associated with it. During this conversation, two others appeared, one being another freshman, and the other being the staff member that was supposed to be facilitating, finally arriving. I decided to move forward, rather than question what had delayed her, so with the two additional people, I discarded my “handy-dandy conversation starter” and began,

“Well, since we’re on the topic of exams and stress, what do you guys do to alleviate stress in your lives?” My phrasing wasn’t as natural as it could have been, but as soon as I got those words out, I felt a rush of confidence after having stated them, realizing that I had essentially started a conversation, without having to resort to the suggestions of What really changed me, is the fact that there were no repercussions for simply starting a conversation, and that nothing bad had happened after doing so, the misconception that caused my abstinence from social interactions.

It was electric.

After the teachers shared their thoughts on de-stressing and final exams, the students started engaging as well, creating a wholesome and encouraging space for all thoughts alike. Eventually, a few of the other students left, leaving me in a conversation solely with adults, but others arrived and the conversation began leading itself with a changing group of participants.

Arianna Otoo ’21 attending a CampusCouches event at Episcopal High School

We soon left a conversation about the importance of organization and calendars, and came to the destination of how increased efficiency with newer technology could possibly be deteriorating our society and alienating us. Every word said was so meaningful, and coming from teachers, adults who had had their fair share of experience in the world and could pass their knowledge unto me, as well as fellow peers who I had never taken the time to converse with before, my perspective on various issues was enhanced, and I enjoyed the hidden value in talking with other people, something I never allowed myself to do before. I had discovered that I didn’t need to put as much effort into talking as I did prior to the experience, and the ability to listen to others, encourage dialogue and foster differing perspectives, while subconsciously guiding a meaningful conversation was practically innate. Bearing the title of ‘facilitator’ in this small group of people gave me more confidence in my leadership and social abilities.

My natural inclination had never been to socialize with people, and I didn’t ever think that I would possess the confidence to become a leader and start a conversation. Attending TableTalk events in the past, I couldn’t help but think that although it was so easy to simply join a conversation and provide your input, it was so difficult to actually initiate conversation with other people.

After my first experience facilitating, I soon realized that I was wrong, and that being a leader doesn’t always have to be something extraordinary.

I didn’t initially grasp how preposterous my fear of talking to people had been, and came to understand that letting go of that fear opened so many passages for me, allowing me to truly enjoy sharing ideas and talking with others. The confidence TableTalk instilled in me may have been the best birthday gift I’ve ever received, so for that…

Thank you, TableTalk