How I froze in front of 400 parents

I was on the brink of social death.

The year was 1997 and I was 10 years old.

They stared at me. Parents from the front, and students from the sides. Like a can of Pepsi, emotionally shaken, the lid will blow.

I’m standing in the middle of an auditorium at my elementary school. There were at least 400 parents staring at me. Behind me were three rows of students singing “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes”. Years later, I realized it’s the number of seconds in one year.

My fifth grade teacher gave me the honors of reciting a poem with two other schoolmates. I loved the spotlight. The three of us would recite one poem, a couple of lines each.

This was my time to shine. She asked ME. She could have asked anyone, but she asked ME. I’d make her proud.

Not my teacher but the intentions were the same.

Was I nervous? No, I was a bad ass 10 year old; OF COURSE, I WAS NERVOUS. I’m 10 years old. I spent over a quarter of my life in elementary school. This was life and social status was everything.

Graduation day was here and I’m in the middle and the two guys are beside me.

The kid next to me finished his poem, and the lights and audience shifted their eyes on me. I rehearsed this poem at least 30 times before. My brain knew it by heart. I felt that the world was watching. A light sweat enveloped my hands. That similar sweat you feel on your hands when you’re about to open your mouth to make a speech.

I panicked.

My mouth was sealed shut. I saw my teacher in a tunneled vision with a look of encouragement.

The amygdala in my brain went into full drive. Flight or fight response activated. I froze. I recall the panicked state. I couldn’t remember a word of that damn poem. I’m dying on the inside and forcing my mind to see the words but all I saw was judgment in front of my eyes.

My mom was in the audience. How would I make her look in front of other parents?

Something like a minute passed and I saw a blur and felt a wetness on my eyes. Tears. Tears ran down my eyes in narrow streams and my face was rosy red.

FLIGHT. I chose flight, turned to the right, and ran down to the exit door at the front of the auditorium.

I didn’t make it through the end of the graduation ceremony. I couldn’t go back there.

Lucky for me, my mom caught up to me and was able to calm me down and we left the building. She had a way of putting things into perspective.

Thinking about it now, I chuckle. You’re 10 years old and perspective is narrow.

Aftermath

My social death was softened by two things:

  • It was the last day of elementary school. I wouldn’t see many of my classmates in middle school.
  • I had 2 months of summer vacation before middle school started.

Two months to a 10 year old is enough to forget.

Move on

I was nervous telling you this story. It took 1 month after I first wrote it to publish it online. It’s a tale of a vulnerable moment in my life.

This past event could have messed me up. It could have been a good reason for being shy. It could be a good reason to sit home and not crack jokes. But I like jokes. Today, I enjoy presenting. If I know the topic, I’ll present it well. Technical presentations, online demos, and toastmasters have all helped with that.

You have a story like this too. A story of embarrassment or deep vulnerability. It happened and it’s gone. You’re not the 10 year old you today. That past you is dead. The you from 1 month ago is dead. You are YOU — TODAY.

Don’t let what happened months ago define you today. Don’t do it. The pity train doesn’t take hitchhikers. It’s a sad journey on that train. It’s a bunch of whiners licking their past wounds. It’s not you.

Life happens to you, to Bob, to Alice, to Jack, and to me. Nobody is exempt. Keep moving.