It’s not everything we are afraid of we deserve fearing. But sadly, no self-help books or Ted talk makes a truly afraid person stop being afraid. Of all the phobias, the one I have struggled with all my life is the over trashed and seemingly conquered fear of public speaking. Like the smart person I have prided myself as being, I avoided it like a plague. I couldn’t remember ever doing it but it crippled me to even think of it. The “just confront it” or “everyone has it too” and especially the “imagine everyone butt naked” thing never cut it. Why would it make sense for a speaker to imagine her male audience with various sizes of penis staring at her? Eww. Whoever came up with that is a joke.
My not so enthusiastic mother once told me over the noise of our antique blender, while blending the pepper for my father’s Ofong soup, that fears would not be fears if they weren’t going to catch up with us. “Maachi, if you are afraid of it, then start preparing for it. Your fear is valid, it will happen.” Then, I had mumbled and grumbled, thankfully saved from a tongue lashing, or worse, a slap by the grrrrr and fuuuuuu of the blender. Of course my mother had been talking about marriage but she was no less right. So like she prophesized, I could not avoid public speaking forever.
In fact, the day was very cunning it began when the most vital member of my group work fell sick with malaria. I was unfortunate to be the only group member that compiled the work with her. Let me tell you quickly that diligence is hardly ever a good thing. It only means more responsibility.. And that day, I should have known.
As I woke up, I had a very funny feeling in my stomach. They say the intuition of an undiluted Igbo blood is no less than that of a psychic. The funny feeling did not disappear after I emptied my bowel in the toilet bowl, it did not diffuse as I wolfed down three slices of bread and cold Cowbell chocolate drink. It was there as I boarded the bike that took me to school that morning. And it grew especially worse when I saw my group members all waiting for me, donning a uniform, funny look as I walked towards them. To put it precisely, they all looked at me as one would imagine the twelve disciples looked whenever Jesus walked in. When I was informed of my unfortunate circumstances, I wanted to drop dead. There is no other way to put it.
I shook my head vehemently. You guys know I have never spoken, you know I can’t do it. Ore, tell them, I said to my friend. But my friend turned her head from one side to another before planting her gaze at the signboard of the faculty. Now that I think of it, it seemed as if she had been trying to ask me how I thought I could pass through Faculty of Law for five years without ever going through this. I cursed Laide, the sick group leader. How dare the idiot fall sick? Even if he was sick, couldn’t he have just waited till the end of the presentation? How hard can it be to take vegetables and use mosquito net, really?
My lamentations were, of course, silent. I was so angry, so pissed off at myself that even though the presentation had not started my brain began to freeze up. I could feel my throat closing up too. What would I do now? I turned to God next. I begged and bribed and cajoled. If only He would make the lecturer cancel the presentation, I would pay three tenth tithe when I make it. In fact, I would never ever ask God for anything again, except maybe another time after the next time.
But many of us are living testimonies to God’s wicked sense of humour. Not only did the lecturer come, she came very early and started the presentations immediately.
“What is our group number?” I asked Favour, begging with my eyes that she have some good news.
But Favour did not have good news and the apology could be detected as she relayed to me that we were in group 2. She patted my shoulder in pity but it was obvious from her body language that she was not going to rescue me by taking my place. How could Laide have selected group 2? I had not been the least bit concerned with group numbering all my life but now, it seemed like one basic thing that should have at least been gotten right.
I did not hear a word of group one’s presentation. Every applause by my classmates were like needles on my skin. I was cold but I continued to fan myself. I could not stand still, I looked left and right, and up and down but it was obvious that both God and man had set me up for this. The lecturer said something about section fifteen of the Land Use Act and how important it was. I picked up my pen and tried to jot but my hand trembled so badly that the pen kept falling. I closed my book and gave up. I tried to revise again but came up completely blank. Instead, all I could see was my mother’s ancient blender. Was this normal, was this madness? If I fainted, would the lecturer take pity on us and pass us?
Like the warned rapture, the class rep announced that group two was up. I stood up on shaky legs and struggled to the front of the class. How would I do it? What would I say? I wished for long skirts now to cover the tremors that kept threatening to turn me to a puddle on the floor. If only I had joined The Literary and Debating Society in year one. If I had, maybe I would have faced this fear earlier and gotten over it. If only the ground could open up and gulp me in one huge bite.
I heard my group members –the speaking ones- take turns with the presentation. Customary tenancy as -defined by statute, someone said some ambiguous –at the time- things about Kolanut Tenancy and next thing I knew, Ore tapped me gently that I was up. I swallowed and then gulped. I felt something suspiciously like tears in my eyes and wondered if I was going to cry and become the trending subject of ridicule. I tried to think of the fact that the people I was going to speak to were ignorant and were depending on me and that almost worked, until I saw the lecturer from the corner of my eye, pacing in her bright green suit.
Then I closed my eyes and thought instead of the ofong soup from that night. The blender was old and noisy but it still blended the pepper for the ofong soup. It may not have been the best ofong soup my mother made, but it was better than no ofong soup. Then I opened my eyes and just let myself go. I did not become Noah Trevor or Barrack Obama. I did not glow like Chimamanda or even the president of the faculty’s Literary and Debating Society. In all honestly, I stuttered like Ore, was inaudible like Favour and dropped half-lines like Barakat. But when I was done, the world did not stop. The next group member came and concluded and just like they did when group one was done, the class loudly applauded.
It only dawned on me later as I struggled to catch my breath that all of these people did not have public speaking figured out. Very few enjoyed it, some were good at it but the rest just dealt with it. As people patted me, they smiled and sympathetically told me it was an okay job. They didn’t say great, or good but they didn’t say it was the most terrible thing either. And the only thing worse than the first time was never having tried. At the very least, I came out of it knowing I was never going to be the president of The Literary and Debating society; there was no lost love there. But I am no longer the girl who had never stood on a stage before. My fear may not have disappeared but it became a fear I was entitled to.