Finding My Voice In Front Of the Class

My fifth-grade teacher had fingernails that were a work of art. They were bright red and shiny, but most of all, they were long and never broken, their ends finely tapered into rounded points. And although I can see them clearly after all these years, it is remembering their impact into the sensitive spot between my shoulder blades that reminds me how far I've come since then.

Miss Kapchan was a tall and substantial woman whose flaming red hair and full-skirted flowered dresses were famous. Her voice was loud and her classroom style was that of unflinching discipline. Her weapon was, naturally, those nails.

While we sat bent over arithmetic problems or spelling words, she roamed the room silently, slipping in behind our neat rows, detecting the least misdemeanor. Somehow it was always a surprise, that sharp stab in the back that made you sit straight up. It came for whispering, for working too slowly, or for making a mistake.

I knew that finger stab quite well, but it was not a brisk poke that has remained my most significant memory of Miss Kapchan. It was the day she made me really notice my fear of public speaking.

From the time we left my homeland, Cuba, and came to the United States, I had developed a dread of speaking in front of many people. In fact, for a few weeks I refused to speak at all, in either Spanish or English, prompting my mother to wonder whether leaving had been the best thing after all. Eventually, I spoke again. But I was a shy child who spoke minimally to adults, made new friends with difficulty, and never, ever, got up in front of the class.

Fortunately, I could read my book reports from my desk, and while doing arithmetic problems in front of the class, I always kept my face firmly toward the blackboard. All was safe for me until fifth grade. Miss Kapchan was not open to the nuances of individual weakness or to adapting her lesson plans for one.

The day came when Miss Kapchan decided that it would be a good idea for fifth-graders to learn how to give short speeches in front of the class. We were to speak for five minutes about ourselves, and it would be taped on her small recorder and played back so she could critique us.

One by one, my fellow classmates made their way to the front and spoke. What they said I do not remember because I was so busy being terrified about my own turn. When it came, I sat glued to my seat, unable to rise. It was simply a matter of being totally unable to walk to the front, open my mouth, and utter one word into that vast silence of 26 faces looking expectantly my way. I had not yet found my public voice.

For some of us, one of the most challenging efforts we will make in growing up is to find our voice - that confidence to express one's unique self in words and without reluctance. Eventually, as that voice grows stronger and more practiced, expressing it becomes a source of pleasure and satisfaction, allowing us to feel like an important part of a group.

For me, that day in Miss Kapchan's class ended in pure defeat and humiliation. She pulled me to my feet and dragged me to the front, but I stood there frozen and speechless as I felt the color rising in my cheeks. I have never, since then, underestimated the strength of a child's timidity and have found myself rushing to relieve any shy child.

Finally, as the minutes passed, Miss Kapchan recruited my best friend, Anita, calling her up to ask me questions to see if, in that way, I would speak. Poor Anita, regretfully, did what the teacher asked, but again I would not say one word and merely shook my head.

There was a hint of stubbornness in that timidity. Miss Kapchan had met her match, and so I sat down, still defiant, but aware of the red zero marked into her grading book.

It was not until 10th grade that I learned in the classroom what I had always known instinctively with my grandparents and my closest friends: how to let the inner voice come out.

At my grandparents', I could speak endlessly about school and read my poetry and feel absolutely confident that what I said was worthy to be heard. Once at school, the voice would always retreat inside again.

Then, in 10th grade, my English teacher began a unit on public speaking, and while I cringed in my seat, she described what we were to do. It was to be a descriptive speech. I remember her saying that it was important to want the audience to really understand just what we had to say.

The date for my speech fell on my birthday. As I gathered all my shaky courage, I was consoled by the thought that once the ordeal was over I had a reward to anticipate: my birthday celebration. My topic that day was yoga exercises.

I went forward trembling and began reading from my page. When the time came to demonstrate the first position, I felt a flutter of excitement to see 30 students rotate their necks round and round in circles. They enjoyed watching something different, and soon we moved on to the ``stork'' position, standing straight with one leg raised, and then the ``lion,'' where the face is stretched into a funny shape.

Somewhere between my first sentence and the end of the speech, I had begun to enjoy myself, and in doing so I found I had lost my paralyzing fear.

I dreaded my next speech a bit less and was never again unable to open my mouth and speak aloud in front of a group.

Years later, the first college class I taught was made up of large and restless football players, not exactly eager to fulfill their Spanish language requirement. We met daily to learn basic conversation. And as I playfully threw out verb-tense drills or created sports dialogues to memorize, they began to speak and enjoy the strange sounds of Spanish.

Their floral bouquet, presented to me on our last day of class, was like a long-awaited affirmation of my ability to reach out in spoken words and make contact with a group. What I had learned that day in 10th grade was something Miss Kapchan had perhaps never stopped to consider: her audience.

On that triumphant day of my first classroom speech, I had planned for my listeners, thinking of them most of all. And in that way I removed the self-consciousness that had always kept me captive. I found the freedom to reach across that frightening expanse of expectant silence and offer it my voice. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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