Not me. Nope. Uh uh.
Why people so often make that assumption, or draw that inference about me, is kind of a mystery. I’m just like anybody else. Lots of stuff just scares the bejesus out of me.
Sometimes I even admit it, let it show. Sometimes I can’t help it.
Public speaking is one of those things that terrifies a lot of people. Back in high school I might have had a few rough minutes with it, not the speaking part, more the thinking about getting up there in front of the class and speaking, because once a body gets up there and starts talking it just kind of flows and goes and it’s over before a body knows it, but the anticipation can be kind of nerve wracking.
At least until you get used to it. Once you do, and believe me, I’ve had to coach lots of students in how not to be terrified or how to stand with a poster or even that most dreaded of all things for students to do, how to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk about what they know, once you’ve done it a time or ten, it gets pretty easy.
A former colleague teacher of mine told me that she was incredibly nervous, always, on the first day of class. She’d been teaching for over 25 years at that point. Me, I was kind of nervous on that very first day ever of teaching, that first walk into a classroom and lead the show day, but by the end of that first week I was having a really good time with it, and the nervousness was totally gone, and I never felt it again.
At least not with teaching. Well, there was that time in Plant Ecology during menopausal meltdown that Rory Telemeco, that smartass, basically kicked my ass in a discussion on how to elucidate phenotypic plasticity, tease it apart the nature from the nurture, he stellar genius researching that topic, me winging it my first time through that course, but not in general.
The very first time I stood and delivered a research presentation, and I guess it would have been that first year’s worth of gas exchange data, way before I ever taught, and I presented it not to my peers nor students but to a bunch of professors at a meeting, and I wasn’t one yet, not a professor, just a student, but for sure I was nervous as all get out with that, but my mentor was good and told me to just get up there and tell my story, I knew the story, better than anybody knew it, and sure enough, once I got up there and started with the telling, it flowed just fine.
By the end of that first summer I’d done three meetings with folks not my peers and flowed just fine. I was good at it. Presentation of knowledge and research in a professional setting, no problem, I had it down my first year in grad school. By those fourth and fifth years I’d done it so many times nobody had a clue I was not a professorial peer; my age fooled them.
But then there was that one time.
Grad school was a sixty hour a week endeavor for me, for sure. There were the classes to take, the field research, and I mean 2 or 3 different projects, and the greenhouse studies, physical work, lab work, and of course the data processing, number crunching, writing, presentation preparation, all of it, not to mention the love affair, so I pretty much ran full bore non stop from the time my eyes opened in the morning until I fell into bed at night.
I did lots of stuff.
And of course it is wise for a student (or a professor on the tenure track, it’s a way of life that never ends, except maybe for those folks who slow way down after tenure) to volunteer for all sorts of things that one is constantly asked to volunteer for, to do the things that need to be done, and if they interested me at all I often did, foolishly. So when Monika, my undergrad mentor’s wife who was associated with the CAP LTER, that NSF research initiative that funded me, asked if I’d work in the summer program to teach middle school teachers how to conduct research with their students, come up with some simple field projects, I said sure.
But then when the day rolled around for me to go in and talk to the teachers, the big summer extravaganza the CAP LTER was putting on to get that K-12 thing going, that was part of the CAP LTER, the Ecology Explorers, well, of course I’d put it on my calendar and I was there, but I’d been so bloody busy with everything else that I’d not had much time to prepare.
I’d thought about it a little. I basically had something in mind for the summer program, and indeed, it worked out fine, the program, but I’d been so bloody busy that I just figured, oh WTF, I’m good at public professional speaking, I’ve got some ideas, I’ll just wing it. So I showed up with like 4 PowerPoint slides I threw together a half hour before the meeting that I could use to reference while I talked about my basic ideas and called it good.
But then of course lots of folks there had put all kinds of time and effort into their little 15 minute presentations, and some of it was really good, some of it sucked, even if adequately presented, but when my turn came and I got up there and turned on the projector and looked out over my audience I thought “F**k, I’m totally unprepared”.
I wung my way through it, fifteen minutes worth of wild flapping, some intermittent free falling, a few seconds of soaring here and there, but mostly lucky to survive the rather sloppy crash landing. My voice quavered uncontrollably through the whole thing, I was sweating, hyperventilating, stumbling with my words, saying um every five seconds, flailing.
Worst of all, I could look out and see Monika’s jaw hanging on her chest in shock as I floundered. Lots of folks were surprised, it was a side of me they’d never seen. There was a reason I’d been asked to do this gig, and it wasn’t because I was an ill prepared, bumbling airhead.
Monika, a woman I knew fairly well, approached me immediately at the break, which came right after my bit, stormed up really, not mad, but aghast.
You were nervous!
That’s what she said. She was shocked. She was fine with what I presented, thought it would go great with the EE’s, that was not the point. She simply could not believe that I’d been nervous during the presentation. She’d seen me present, bunches, never had she seen the, well, fear, she’d seen in me that day. She considered me fearless.
Thing is, that interaction was one of those things that got me to thinking, quite a bit.
What was there to be afraid of? I mean, I could walk up in front of a room full of professors in my fancy skirt suit with my presentation and puke all over the podium, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It wouldn’t even hurt, not beyond the puking part.
It’s why that first day of teaching, ever, involved a few minute of nerves, no more. It’s why after the first time (but not the 20th) I gave a really stupid or wrong answer to a student, or did something really embarrassing in front of a room full of people (and when one teaches, she’s in front of lots of rooms full of people, all the time), it never much bothered me.
What’s to be afraid of?
Pain and suffering kind of suck, but one can have pain without suffering too much. Terrorists? I’ve never seen one myself, other than those of the Military Industrial (and all its sub units, heck, it’s all business these days, maybe we can just call it the industrial) Complex. They’re pretty scary. No, not much to be afraid of in my life, not at all. Death? It's coming to everybody, no getting around that, and I've seen so much of it in all kinds of ways that I'm really not afraid of it, at all.
Now, of course, if I was a person of color, I might be afraid to drive my car or walk in the wrong neighborhood, because that might mean a death so unjust and pointless, murder, a wrong, so I suppose I fear for the person of color and that one would murder him. If I had no money instead of not much, I might be afraid of hunger, or homelessness and its discomforts, so I suppose I fear for the person who has no money. If I were living in one of those countries being bombed by the Industrial Complex, I’d likely be afraid of being bombed, losing loved ones and limbs and such, so I suppose I fear for those living in countries being bombed by the Industrial Complex. If I were water, I’d fear pollution, or air, or even soil, surely I’d fear the poisons being dumped into me.
Oh, wait. Perhaps there is something to be afraid of, fears to face.
No, I’m not fearless, not at all.