It suddenly occurs to me that I will have to share my writing aloud very soon. My heart starts beating faster and its vibrations start a path of dominos through my body. My stomach sinks and constricts. My hands tremble and sweat. My legs begin to shake, slowly at first and building until I’m afraid I might kick someone nearby. My face freezes and I stare off thinking, why am I so nervous?
Over the past 12 workdays in my Summer Leadership Writing Institute, I have shared with my colleagues, told jokes, and become comfortable showing my true self to them. What is more true than my writing? But there it is: the devastating effect of anxiety.
I generally appear to be a very confident person who likes attention, doesn’t mind standing out, and enjoys the power of making those around her laugh. I relish that role in new situations. I don’t feel comfortable competing for the space, so I’m happy to make room for a similar personality type, but I feel strength in that zone. The strength, however, is a front. I’m very concerned with how I come across to others, what they might think of me, and if they like me. The humor and playfulness is often a crutch that I rely on so heavily that when it appears to be kicked out from under me, even I am surprised to find the tiny scared girl in the corner who’s terrified to share with the group.
She showed up on our last day of class, tip toeing in so I didn’t notice her at first and clutching tighter and tighter around my heart as the reality that I would have to present next came up. I tried to express this to those around me, but, of course the confident funny girl showed up to speak and the tiny terrified girl stood on my chest and made my hands shake. I could almost feel tears welling up. People around me were kind and reassuring, “You’re going to be fine. You’ve got this.” But more than the nerves and the fear, I felt betrayed. My body was working against my idea of myself as a person. I did not sign up for fear. Yet there I was, unable to control my body, the storage container of myself.
I’m an adult and I’m able to reflect on these moments both while they’re happening and in retrospect. Even my body’s attempt at surprises can’t stop my thinking self from being able to observe and analyze a situation. I completed my task, read my piece of writing, and didn’t die. I’m writing my experience now and while there’s a part of me that’s laughing about what happened, there’s also another part of me (that tiny girl) that’s still feeling the aftershocks from the earthquake of nerves that occurred only hours ago.
My students have these same experiences. They show me (or maybe I only see) one side of themselves: the goofy class clown, the overachiever, the sassy smartypants. But these are not always the personas in control. They are often just the personas that we see. I hope that I am able to take my personal experience and translate that for my students in order to show them that even big kids get scared. I hope that I am able to appreciate what my students show me on purpose and what they show me in times of high stress. I hope that my tiny little girl stays with me as a reminder, but I also hope she finds some faith in my ability to handle these moments and survive.