I have hauntingly vivid memories of humiliating myself in the third grade. Our class had all of our chairs pushed into a big circle and we were taking turns reading aloud. I was a great reader, so I had no fear at all when it came to be my turn. I jumped right in and it was only after I heard the other kids laughing at me that I realized that I had just pronounced the name of the state next to Virginia as “Mary Land” (not to be confused with ‘Joseph Land’, I guess). I’d been reading since I was THREE, but I’d apparently never heard that particular state name pronounced. I think it was at that moment that my fear of speaking…or doing much of anything else…in front of crowds was born.
I’ve written before about not wanting to stand out in a crowd, but standing in front of a crowd is the stuff my nightmares are made of. My face turns a brilliant red, and my mouth just starts working independently from my brain. If I’m not careful, I’ll just stop breathing altogether! I remember times when I’ve had to give a presentation for work, and it felt as though I was outside my body, listening to the red-faced blonde woman speak. I could see her pointing to a spreadsheet or whiteboard, and I heard the words she was saying, but I had no idea where they were coming from. A few people have even asked afterwards if I was okay…I just nodded and smiled (while trying to will my crimson face back to a normal human hue).
The few times that I have actually performed in public weren’t really by choice. When I was about nine I was informed by our Pastor’s wife that I would be playing Mary in a church Christmas pageant, and that I had to sing a solo. I don’t remember anything about the actual pageant except that I didn’t have the option of backing out, and that my voice felt a bit wobbly during my song. (I never really bought the whole virgin birth idea, so I guess there might have been some madonna-karma in action.)
A few years later I had a piano recital that I spent weeks agonizing over. When the big moment finally came, I nervously walked out and sat at the piano. I took a big breath and actually played well for a bit, my body swaying dramatically with the strains of Für Elise. I made it to about two-thirds of the way through before I totally blanked…I just had no idea where to put my hands. I stopped and then tried to start again…painfully plunking out a few sour notes. My heart stopped, and I finally just got up and walked off stage…totally mortified. My grandmother tried to console me and told me that I looked great up there (at least my overly dramatic musician sway had paid off). She had paid for my lessons and, until that moment, had been in serious denial about my talent (or the lack of it). Thankfully, she apparently didn’t believe in throwing good money after bad, because I don’t remember having any more recitals (or lessons, for that matter) after that night.
My most successful performance was for an Honor Society / Key Club variety show at the end of my junior year in high school…but it wasn’t on purpose. I was asked to play ‘Mrs. Wiggins’, the ditsy secretary played by Carol Burnett in one of the bits from her TV show. Her boss on the show was Mr. Tudball, who was played by Tim Conway. Our version of the skit was to feature a song performed by my boss–another student who was a seasoned performer with an amazing voice. I was only there to file my nails, look confused, and maybe sing quietly along with my ‘boss’. It seemed like a safe enough way to be part of the show, so I accepted the part.
I was totally nervous, but things went pretty well until the song started…and the singer didn’t. The damn kid had completely forgotten the words to the modified version of Pieces of April that we were to sing (“Oh we’ve got pieces of students….all over District 1…!”) Mr. ‘I’m Practically a Professional Singer’ just stood there, looking like the proverbial deer in the headlights. It was absolutely the scariest moment of my young life.
To this day I still can’t believe it, but I somehow managed to get out of my desk chair, walk up to stand next to my boss at the front of the stage…and I proceeded to belt our song out like a seasoned drag queen doing a spot-on Ethel Merman impersonation! We were in the high school auditorium without microphones, so I figured I’d better sing really loudly to be heard…especially over my pounding heart! I made it through and even got a big round of applause, so I guess I didn’t screw it up too badly, but I liken the experience to the one had by those mothers who pick up a car before it crushes their baby. I figure that the adrenaline deserves the credit…not me.
I reminded my sister today about that song, and she replied, “I do remember it…you were…um…so LOUD!” It was as if she was channeling my grandmother, and it made me smile. These days I occasionally get up to sing some karaoke. I’m not particularly good at it, but it’s fun and my face no longer gets red. I think Grandmama would get a kick out of it, and she might even be convinced to sing a duet with me. And if she forgot the words, I’d have her back.