Growing up, I dreaded parent teacher conferences. Every fall, winter, and spring I would rehash the same argument with my mom and dad over the most repeated comment in my school district’s history:
“Anjali just needs to speak up more!”
A seemingly trivial charge, I know, but I still remember how asking my teachers to go to the bathroom was a challenge that I sometimes refused to conquer. Partner assignments were my worst nightmare, and being called on to read out loud to the class? Forget about it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t afraid of speaking to everyone. Just most people. What truly terrified me was conversation with anyone who I was not 110% comfortable with. You see, the logic that had been ingrained in my mind for as long as I could remember was that if I didn’t speak, I wouldn’t have to worry about saying the “wrong thing,” and thus would never face judgement from other people.
My comfort zone consisted only of what was familiar to me. Throughout the majority of my life, I kept the same friend group from childhood. My hobbies were comprised of the ones my parents forced me into. And in a world full of over 7 billion people, my voice was only heard by a select few.
My reservation was hardly a secret. My classmates, family friends, and even strangers could immediately recognize my shy nature when barely I spoke at a whisper in class.
Instead of meeting new people, I spent the majority of my free time reading. I loved being transported to a world where I could sit back and narrate others’ stories without having to worry about my own. In fact, the voice inside my head found a way to embody the courage of the many authors and visionaries I read about. I admired Steve Jobs and found his rebellious nature contagious, training the voice in my head to mimic his fiery yet wise words. Obama’s ability to shift from a commanding leader to an average citizen inspired the same duality in my voice as I read through his many transcripts. And as I narrated their stories silently, I slowly craved their charisma and courage to deliver them out loud myself.
All the while, the consequences of my insecurity soon jumped from being just a small reduction in participation points, to classmates not knowing my name until the end of the school year. My group of friends began to distance themselves from me as they found the courage to go speak to the new kids. Teachers stopped pleading with me and simply accepted that my hand was not going to raise. Although I hated attention, I could not stop myself from wondering why no one would ask me to speak up anymore.
My safe space continued to shrink, and the world continued to grow. The, “Please hang out with us” comments stopped and I felt forgotten, swallowed up by my own insecurity.
I remember that my favorite part of a book at that time was when a character could no longer ignore their fears. That climactic peak where even the slightest possibility of erasing their weakness was enough to push them over the edge. My life had long been defined by what was familiar while I stood watching this same edge stare back at me. But as I began to fathom the possibility of there being more to my story, I found myself inching closer and closer until I was able to brace myself and jump off.
I loved to read speeches written by my most admired idols, but had never before considered writing one myself. My parents were ecstatic by my sudden burst of inspiration and enrolled me in a public speaking class right away. Every Saturday morning during my freshman year of high school, I dragged myself to a small office building with 11 disinterested and unmotivated kids. Sitting in a circle and sharing our speech ideas, at first I dreaded the awkward conversations and blank stares people threw at me. But day by day my voice grew more steady, more confident, and, most importantly, more heard.
My passion for reading meshed well with my newfound hobby, and the hours I spent analyzing the diction and pace of famous orators were reflected in the pieces I wrote. The thoughts that had long cluttered my mind as I read silently were set free in my speeches. I had grown so used to keeping things to myself that expressing my original ideas felt more like a relief than a burden. As my mess of thoughts emptied out, I had nothing left to hide. My anxiety began to drift further away, and my speech improved with every mock interview, debate, and performance in between.
The friends I have made in college would not be surprised that my high school resume consisted primarily of public speaking groups, debate teams, and leadership positions. But my relatives were stunned when I visited them in India for the first time in a few years and was able talk to every taxi driver, store merchant, and distant 3rd cousin with confidence. My phone would not stop buzzing with notifications when my name was announced as a high school debate finalist. “You’re on the debate team? Since when? I thought you hated speaking in front of crowds!?” During my senior year of high school my parents came home from parent teacher conferences smiling bigger than I’ve ever seen them before because my physics teacher complained that I spent too much time talking in class. For most, this comment would probably get them in trouble, but for me, it meant the world.
A short recountment will never do this transformation justice. For the majority of my life I was trapped by the belief that I should be defined by what I was comfortable with, and that I would always be what everyone else knew me as: shy. But this anxiety that I and many others presumed was inescapable no longer consumes me. Though I must continually bridge the gap for people who may not know who I was or who I have become, reminding myself of where I came from only increases my appreciation for who I am today. The risks I have learned to take, whether it be presenting my ideas, talking to strangers, or simply volunteering to go first, have led to a heightened sense of satisfaction that my reservation never gave and a way to finally speak my own story.
Staff Writer, What the F Magazine
Art by Anna Herscher
Art Director, What the F Magazine