Speechgate

I’m not the type to consciously put myself into uncomfortable situations. This has led to a very safe, and admittedly sometimes boring life. I once hid in an upstairs storage room for an hour because my relatives came over and I had neither the patience nor the adequate caffeine intake to deal with a situation that emotionally draining.

That is me in a nutshell. If it is a mild inconvenience or even moderately stressful, I avoid it like the plague. That’s why my choice to run for student council president in secondary school not only made no sense, but as a writer, I would see this in a book and then throw said book across the room for inconsistent and outlandish character development.

Seeing as how the beginning is a pretty good place to start, allow me to take you back to the far and distant time of 2015. A simpler era where I ate more than one meal a day and I didn’t have 50 minute train rides to dwell on my misgivings. I was a young and shy fifth year who broke into a cold sweat at the mere mention of a presentation of any description. However, with my penchant for avoiding them at any cost, presentations were few and far between. Well, that was until speechgate.

We had been informed as a year that we would need to elect two student council presidents to preside over the student council. Not knowing what it would entail, I half-heartedly threw my name down. I had no grand plans of leading the students and enacting school codes and such. It had barely crossed my mind again until days later, those among us who had put their name forward were called out and reminded that we had done as much. They mentioned that we would have to give a speech in front of their entire faculty in the staff room and they would be the ones to vote on who would be given the presidency based on said speech. “I’m sorry, what?” I thought. “Well that was moderately fulfilling while it lasted. I’ll go back to failing higher level maths now.” This reaction being born from my fear of speaking about just about anything, in front of just about anybody. Never mind a room full of authority figures judging my elocution prowess.

I had consciously settled on the fact that I was not going to attempt it. However, this nagging thought persisted in the further corners of my mind. “Should I?” I became wary of the idea that a small foreign being had crawled into my ear and induced a sort of psychosis in me. The thought alone of delivering a speech was terrifying, so the question was, why was I contemplating it? I knew I was doing higher level maths, but had my masochistic tendencies really reached so worrying a stage? For days I found myself on a mental seesaw. Will I or won’t I? Yea or nay? Impending humiliation or a coward’s comfort? Although years of self-preservation and trauma was arguing for the latter, I still found myself very much in two minds.

This conflict continued right up until the eve of the big day when I decided that my “just in case I decide that I want to throw myself under the bus” speech turned into an “okay, so I AM throwing myself under the bus” speech. The prospect of becoming student council resident was secondary to me, I figured that if I could make it to the end of the speech without imploding, I would consider the entire endeavour a roaring success.

Whilst writing the speech, keeping it serious and addressing the actual problems in the school as a competent president would, was completely out of the question. The only way I would be able to cope with that level of vulnerability, would be to distract them from how nervous I was. What better way to achieve this than to give an air of confidence by hurling some jokes at them. I wrote a speech that was from beginning to end, a persistent barrage of flippancy and nonchalance. I was worried how it was going to go down with the more austere members of the faculty as it failed to produce one iota of evidence that I was at all capable of fitting the job description.

It was the night before the day of giving the speech and sleep evaded me, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem seeing as I have all the energy of a sloth. I tossed and turned in muted terror. It was in the early hours of the morning when I managed to crawl into my sister’s bed to see if that would calm me but nothing helped. Cursing myself, I figured I should just quit while I was ahead so I could get a decent night’s sleep. However, being the ever stubborn creature that I am, I decided that potential insomnia would not be enough to sway me.

The speeches were to take place in the staff room at the 11 o’clock break so all of the staff could accumulate and harshly judge us at once. Despite the aforementioned night of panic, I managed to go through the first two classes in complete denial of the fact that I was going to do something utterly terrifying to me. Vaccine day at school? No problem, stab me all you like. A big test coming up? It’s fine if I fail, I was going to drop out and live the low cost life of a nun anyway. This fear that was completely irrational, consumed me for the final class before the speeches. I’ll never forget it. It was art. But not the fun kind where you can use the motions of gentle brush strokes as a form of catharsis and paint rainbows and cute little bunnies to your heart’s content. No. I had art history. The class where the teacher just talked at you for forty minutes about how the frog in Manet’s  le dejeuner sur l’herbe was actually an allegory for prostitution. And my well-meaning teacher (God love her, she tried) was giving us one such talk. I remember not being able to sit still. One eye was constantly on the clock. Each passing minute on the clock equating to another churn of the stomach, another bead of sweat down my brow, and another curse to myself for, what I figured at the time, utterly screwing myself over.

The bell went off to signal the end of class. I gulped my last reserve of saliva as my mouth went dry. Armed with nothing but what I then considered to be a catastrophe of a speech, I made my way out of class, along the river Styx and towards hell. There were four of us soldiers braving the unknown and venturing into the fabled land known as the staff room, where forty vultures waited to pick our carcasses clean once we had inevitably died from embarrassment. It was easy to see that I was the most ill equipped of the lot of us. I was in the midst of peers who were a dab hand at stage performances and public speaking. The teacher who was in charge of the proceedings (aka the funeral procession), asked us what order we would like to give our speeches in. I mulled this over for what felt like an age and made the tactical decision to go second. This meant I would have someone before me to warm them up, and I didn’t have to wait through what would be three gruelling speeches.

Next thing I knew, we were in enemy territory. The smell of coffee and fear filled the air. As none of us were permitted to enter the staff room on a regular basis, hence the ingenious name “staff room”, the fact that this was uncharted waters added to the sense of discomfort. I was trying to get my bearings as the first speech was given. Eloquent. Topical. Hard hitting. Far better than my own. I looked to the faces of the teachers. They gave a courtesy laugh at the appropriate places and nodded absent-mindedly when a decent point was made.

Before I knew it, the first speech was over and I heard applause. This meant I was next. Looking to the floor I stepped forward. “Howdy folks.” I began. A few chuffs and chuckles from the vultures. Solid start. I proceeded. I remember convulsing with nerves for the duration of the speech, but I somehow managed to make my words sound semi intelligible and confident. My need to be calmed down was sated every time I made a joke and I heard genuine laughter from the faculty. I do remember daring to look up at my audience once, but my gaze was met with the strictest teacher on the payroll with a half masticated banana rolling around in her mouth. I made a conscious decision to look back down and never look up again; lest my concentration be jeopardized.

I finished to applause. I had done it. I had faced my demons and survived. The feeling of elation was indescribable. I listened to the next two speeches with a large grin on my face. I wished them all the best and hoped they would get it. I was satisfied as it was.

When I found out after that I was chosen to be one of the presidents, I didn’t care if it was a pity vote or if it was due to an authentic belief in my abilities, it made me feel as though I not only faced my demons, but I did so with such tenacity that I slayed them and took their horned heads home to be displayed on a pike.

 

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