Think of the most shy person in your entire high school and that would have been me. Always walking with timid steps and my head down, I rarely looked anyone in the eye, and never spoke up in class. God knows why, when the time came for me to give my very first speech in sophomore Speech class, I chose a terrifying topic to speak about. I’ll never forget the look on the teacher’s face and the way my classmates stared at me in stunned silence when I first said the word “raped.” This was not the #metoo era and in 1983, people had not yet heard the word so often as to become desensitized to it.
My maiden aunt was much like myself and I loved her dearly. She was quiet and shy, a librarian-type who wore glasses and had long, wavy, red hair, freckles, and creamy white skin. In her late thirties, she had never been married—I don’t think she had ever even had a boyfriend—but she dreamed of having children one day.
One winter night a large African American man broke down my gentle aunt’s door and brutally raped her while her German Shepherd cowered in the kitchen, not uttering a sound. At the time I gave my speech, a few months after the assault, our family’s hearts were breaking for her not only because her innocence had been shattered but because we were all terrified that she might have become pregnant by him. What cruel irony it would have been if she had. Remember, this was before people accepted children born out-of-wedlock without ridicule or condemnation.
As I gave my speech, describing the events of that horrible night and the worry-plagued months thereafter, I spoke with a firm voice and looked into the eyes of my audience. Where did my supernatural composure come from? Perhaps it came from the fact that I had practiced speaking the words numerous times, so much that I had memorized them and beaten the shock to bloody silence.
My confidence may have come from the clear conviction I had that the rapist who had savagely turned my aunt’s life upside down deserved to die, or it could have come from the fact that my words were having the desired effect: My classmates were paying rapt attention but it was not me they were seeing; it was my aunt.
In fact I believe my poise in such a stressful situation—speaking in public about a difficult topic—ultimately came from something else. It is a power I have since felt quite a few times, every time I have been called to speak in front of an audience.
Though I am an introvert who would rather listen than speak 99.9% of the time, when I step up onto a stage to speak in front of others, something comes over me. A peace beyond my comprehension fills me and I am able to calmly engage with my audience as I tell them the story they didn’t know they needed to hear.