I served as scripture reader in church today. It was only my second time doing so, but the only reason I don’t do it more is because sign-up is approximately 3 months in advance and it’s difficult to know my schedule that far ahead. It is not my first public speaking engagement–not by a long shot. After I read, I felt this curious mix of contentment, purpose, and frustration. This curious mix of feelings has been my reaction after anything public speaking related in recent years. I thought I’d explore in-depth here.
I used to hate public speaking. It was one of my worst anxiety triggers. Despite singing in a children’s choir, and being okay with that, my fear of public speaking got progressively worse until I gave a presentation on weather in Grade 5. My fear of giving that presentation was so great that I ended up urinating in front of the entire class.
Obviously, something had to be done. I had started counseling that year, and my pediatrician gave me some medication that I was to take an hour or so before public speaking again–this was necessary, despite already being on an anti-psychotic and anti-depressant for my Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
So Grade 6 arrived, and it came time to give a public speaking presentation. I was once again terrified, but this year we were able to warn my teacher and work out an arrangement with her–I was allowed to present just to her–and she was incredibly supportive, and in that support, confidence grew. It is also worth mentioning that that same year, we were electing representative to student council, and the vote was locked due to an even number of students present that day. My teacher cast the deciding vote in my favor, and that year I ended up serving on student council. I did not speak much–student councils are fairly limited in capability–but I believe my teacher’s support of me in that position also helped grow my confidence.
In Grade 7, three influential events changed my perception on public speaking forever. First, our class put on a production of A Christmas Carol. This was quite ambitious for a bunch of 12 year olds, but we pushed through. I signed up to play the role of Bob Crackett. Now, anyone familiar with A Christmas Carol will realize that was not an insignificant part. I thrived in the role, and was applauded for it after. Of course, in retrospect we made a lot of mistakes from a drama perspective–but at the time, I was quite proud of what I managed to accomplish. That year, I also did well enough in my public speaking presentation to go on to the Royal Canadian Legion. At the Legion, I won second place–true, there were only four contestants, and one got penalized for going over the time limit, but it still was another confidence building moment.
At the end of Grade 7, we had to do a job shadow assignment. Since it was our first job shadow assignment in elementary school it was recommended we shadow a parent. At that time, neither of my parents worked jobs that were really appropriate for a 12 year old to job shadow so through friends of the family I ended up getting a job shadow arranged at the Leslie M. Frost Centre outside Dorset. I loved the experience, being into nature stuff. Yet this was during the Conservative reign years in Ontario, and the Leslie M. Frost Centre ended up being closed due to financial budget cuts. This was very outraging to 12 year old me, especially with the job shadow so close in time to the closing. I ended up attending a public protest of the closing at our local Ministry of National Resources in Minden. There was a time at the protest for anybody who wanted to say a word to go up. I still don’t know exactly why I thought it was a good idea as a 12 year old in a County that was populated mostly by the aging to go up and speak at a public protest, but I did–and my protest was so well received that when a protest was planned at Queen’s Park in Toronto, I was asked to speak. I got to use a megaphone and everything. I even appeared on the evening news–and it scares me to this day that there exists a clip from the NewVR days of 12 year old me jumping up and down and screaming at the top of my lungs, but I try not to judge myself too harshly for that.
After those three experiences in Grade 7, I realized something curious: I was no longer afraid of public speaking. This was doubly astonishing as this was my first major fear I had managed to overcome. This told me that I had the capability to overcome major fears which had quite a number of effects as well–but it also gave me the gift of a voice, and that is where our focus shall be.
In high school, my public speaking skills got plenty of practice. I fell in love with drama class and became well known to my drama teachers for my ability to learn my lines quickly and perform them well. I performed poetry readings, I sang in the choir for a couple seasons–and I usually did pretty well in class presentations. All of these cemented and developed my skills in public speaking—and developed my gift of voice.
In university and college, I kept up the practice as much as I was able. For various reasons, I didn’t continue my drama pursuits, but I became a prolific poet and I was able to present my poetry at coffee houses and open mics. I also told the story of my faith journey to churches and donors in order to raise support for campus ministry. And now, I’ve served as a scripture reader, a couple times, and will likely continue to find opportunities to do so.
What all these experiences have led to, is that I have a voice, a powerful voice, and I am able to exercise it in a public sphere. This is a gift few have, and I am well aware of the power and responsibility it entails. A learning assessment I did in college revealed I had non-verbal learning disorder—which means that while my non-verbal skills are in the 5th percentile, my verbal skills are in the 98th percentile. And that means, few can match me verbally.
I know people who use superior verbal abilities to dominate, to cut others down, and to hurt and control others. My resolution has been to instead use my verbal abilities to lift others up, to heal and encourage and strengthen. Part of my practice of having the gift of voice is to know when to let that voice be silent so others can speak.
Now, to the root of the matter: I’ve been feeling that curious mix of contentment, purpose, and frustration when pubic speaking over the past few years–and I think know why. I have this gift of voice, a gift that few others have, but I recognize that I do not use it to its full potential, and i have a burning desire to do so.
I think this is part of my continuing fascination with the idea of seminary, for as a pastor delivering sermons on Sunday I’d be able to use my gift of voice. It even has applications in pastoral care. Unfortunately, seminary remains out of reach, due to financial constraints, so I must find other ways to use my gift of voice.
As I walked home from church today, I realized that there are plenty of opportunities to use my gift, and that I am feeling called to do so–especially in the times we’re currently living. So I’m going to start small. I’m going to start reading my poetry, which I wrote mostly as an outlet for anxiety, at coffee houses and open mics in the wider community. I have resisted doing so because it is written mostly as a self-care thing–but I know that there is strength in knowing that our experiences are shared, and my personal experience could easily be helpful to others going through similar struggles, wrestling with similar doubts. But I know it can’t end there–I’ve got to keep looking for opportunities to use my gift of voice, because it is a gift, and it is up to me to use it the way God intended–to help others, to strengthen, heal, and lift up.