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Germ Bag

Speech Impediment

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 2/28/2001

My 15-year-old niece sang the national anthem at a high school basketball game recently. I was stunned about it then, and weeks later, I'm stunned still. How could such a creature have come from the same gene pool as me? Me, who'd rather have my eyeballs extracted with ice cream scoops than get up in front of more than five people and do anything?

Rebecca couldn't have gotten it from her mom's side--that is, my side. No Redfearn has ever been known to perform unless forced. None have ever gotten up on a stage and sang a song or danced a jig or delivered a speech--not voluntarily, anyway. So it must have come from Rebecca's father's family, a clan of tobacco farmers in Kentucky. OK, maybe not.

Perhaps Rebecca is just more in touch with her inner ham than I am. Maybe she was born with fewer layers covering the ham, keeping it quiet. I know my ham is in there, but I have almost no access to it. For some reason, its protective layers are very, very thick.

Fear of exposing it started early, in first grade, when Mrs. McQueen informed me I'd be the emcee of the Christmas show. I almost vomited when she told me, but I knew there was no getting out of it. Mrs. McQueen was big and mean.

Luckily, emceeing just meant saying, "Welcome everyone, and merry Christmas. And now we present South Grade Elementary's first-grade Christmas pageant." Once that was out of my little piehole I could turn away from the madding crowd and face my classmates standing behind me as they began ba-rum-pa-pum-pumming. It didn't seem like much, but I managed to spend weeks fretting over it and cultivating stomachaches. So intense was my anxiety that if someone gave me the option of having the bejesus kicked out of me by the school bully rather than taking that stage, I'd have taken the whupping.

The big night came, the red curtains opened, and there I was at a microphone in the cafeteria/auditorium with about 80 parents staring at me. A host of tortures would have been preferable. I opened my mouth and, miraculously, words came out. About seven words. But halfway through, at around "we present," I suddenly could take no more and spun around to face my class, addressing them instead. "South Grade Elementary's Christmas pageant!" I said to them. They appeared confused.

That day should have marked the end of my performing career. I prayed as much. Sadly, it didn't. By some cruel twist of fate, I went to a high school that was theater-obsessed, where the teachers were forever making us get up and do oral reports and deliver soliloquies and act in plays. It didn't break me of my fear, though; rather, it taught me some brilliant avoidance tactics. "Oh, sorry, Mr. Milton," I'd whisper. "I can't participate in any of this; I have what's known as 'long-term laryngitis.' Don't know when I'll be getting over it. You'll have to get someone else to play Portia. Sorry."

By junior year, though, my unconscious mind had had enough. It wanted to battle whatever demon was keeping my ham down, so it sent me out the door one night and straight to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. My chum Sam and I got swept up in it, and magically, within a few weeks, we had joined the cast of folks who got dressed up and acted out the midnight movie in front of the screen. She was Janet and I was Columbia. Sam was a theater type so it wasn't a big deal for her, but I couldn't believe I was showing up at this theater every Friday and Saturday duded up in striped shorts and a gold sequined jacket and top hat, dancing and yelping and running up and down the aisles.

It was positively euphoric, breaking through the ham-covering membranes like that. But after about eight months, the cast broke up and moved on. Plus, my parents were sick of me being out till 3 a.m. So I stopped. But I figured I'd beaten the performance anxiety for good, and would be free to run up and down aisles yelping for the rest of my life.

Not so. The dreaded anxiety ricocheted back. In college, I found myself doing everything to avoid having to take a speech class, and if I inadvertently signed up for a course that required oral reports, I'd withdraw. In my sophomore year, I enrolled in a class called "Auschwitz and After." Just lectures and tests, I figured. But midway through the semester the professor sprung it on us--for the final we'd have to get up and spend 15 minutes delivering our impressions and feelings about a specific aspect of the Holocaust.

Trapped, I started scheming. I figured I'd just write up a smashing report and then read it. But the prof said no: We'd be expected to just get up there and emote, sans script. Criminy.

When the day came, I was a mess. I actually hoped I'd fall and break my legs way on the way to class, or get hit by a car. Then the prof would visit me in the hospital, wipe my crinkled brow, and coo, "Don't worry about that report. I'll give you an A based on the pity I feel."

But I didn't have the balls to dart out in front of a car. I went to class and, after a half-hour of hand-wringing, I was called up to the podium. I got up there and read some stuff I'd written about Nazi über-monster Josef Mengele. It went OK for a while, and, surprisingly, the rather stern professor didn't bug me about reading straight from my paper instead of ranting from the heart. I was going to make it.

Then, about halfway through, I started to feel small tremors working their way through my body. What was this? I had no idea. I just kept reading, but within a few minutes I was quaking like a Parkinson's victim. Was I having an epileptic seizure? I was pretty sure I didn't have epilepsy; but thought maybe it had simply chosen that moment for its onset. Or was it some sort of psychic Holocaust energy moving through me?

The trembling kept getting worse. By the end I was reverberating like a broken generator trying to make its way across a room. My words were coming out all staccato-like, and I'd lost control of most motor functions. I was surprised I didn't soil my drawers, or that someone didn't rush up to force a Popsicle stick into my mouth. The class had to think I was stroking out. But I think it was just my limelight anxiety reaching its absolute screaming zenith.

After that, I avoided such situations even more intensely. After college, when I waited tables at K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, I hid in the bathroom every night at 9 when the waitresses were supposed to parade around waving white hanker chiefs above their heads in a traditional New Orleans dance. Later, when I got a job as a reporter, I dreaded the editorial meetings where we all had to say what we were working on. When my turn came, my mind would go blank from the anxiety. I took to keeping little notes in front of me to remind me of what I was working on--when I couldn't avoid the meetings altogether.

At a more recent newspaper job, people started calling and asking me to come speak to this group or that. What a freaking nightmare. Usually, I'd tell them I had a conflict and couldn't. Hell, I'd become a print reporter so I wouldn't have to stand up and say anything to groups of people or a big, scary camera. I just wanted to sit in a corner and write. Why couldn't I just be left alone to do that? But then someone called and asked me to address a pack of fledgling public-relations people. That hit a nerve. Fledgling PR people--they had been the bane of my existence, ringing me up asking stupid questions every day for the past nine years. A chance to spend an hour training a whole flock of them? That was more than enough to slip past my avoidance censors.

As I prepared my talk, my unconscious mind showed up. This will be it, it said. This will break you through the horror hymen. Stand up at a microphone and have your way with the PR people, and then you will be free to run and yelp in the aisles. Figuratively speaking of course. Wow--no more baggage? No more anxiety? Could it be? I was stoked. I kept working on my what-reporters-want notes, letting the pre-event fear move through me, secure in the knowledge that soon it would all be washed away for good, and I would be free.

A week before the talk, I was notified that it had been cancelled. The PR folks said they'd ring me back to reschedule, but they never did. Ah, but all was not lost--a few months later, someone else called wanting me to give the same sort of talk. But then all was lost when they canceled too. Oh cruel Fortuna! I wanted to cry out, fists brandished toward the heavens. Am I stuck hiding my ham forever?

Maybe I am. I don't really see any end in sight. Around Christmas, just as I was pondering how lucky I've been to have never faced a game of charades in my life, one broke out while my man Marty and I were visiting his folks. Ouch. About 20 of Marty's kin were flapping their arms and shouting out answers and prancing around, and I was turning beet red at the prospect of participating. Thank the goddesses the family patriarch seemed to understand and accept my affliction; there was no pressure to stand up and start yelping, "Sounds like! Sounds like!" But it occurred to me that now people were enabling me.

Last weekend, the ham hymen snapped shut again, this time taunting me in Boston. I'd journeyed there to attend a surprise birthday party for my brother, Paul. The morning of the party, my sister-in-law told us told us she wanted each of us--four of the five Redfearn sibs would be there, plus my mom--to get up and say something about Paul. At a microphone. In front of 70 people.

My insides careened with equal parts enthusiasm and terror. My inner voices were clashing something fierce. Oh no--public speaking! No! Oh yes, I want to do it! I must! This is my chance! Quite a workout for the nervous system.

Then my unconscious mind showed up yet again, sage as always: This is it. Do it and you're done with this silliness.

How exciting! I thought about what to say, and came up with an old story about the teenage Paul excitedly telling tiny little me that a bottle of his cologne was actually a bomb and that I should run for my life. I tore out to the street and waited there for my family to be blown to smithereens, wondering where I'd go to live.

I thought that was a nice birthday story to tell. My sister, also nervous about this whole thing, thought she might talk about how Paul used to ride a unicycle to school, then she was going to get mushy. Excellent: Our inner hams were in the birth canal, ready to crown. Boil some water! Break out the receiving blankets!

Alas, when we arrived at the party that night the rest of the Redfearns were in typical Redfearn mode--brazen and outgoing, but utterly unwilling to take it to a microphone. "We love Paul, but we're not getting up there," they said. I felt my ham slither back up the birth canal, gripping tight to any excuse to not to be born.

"Good," my sister and I said. "Us neither."

And there went another opportunity for getting that ham out for good. My reaction was a strange mix of disappointment and relief. The good news is the disappointment is starting to edge out relief in these situations. In another 35 years, maybe that will make me take hold of the reins and act. But probably not.

Sometimes I wonder: What am I going to do if I get married? Just have somebody else say my vows? Or make sure it's just me, my betrothed and a justice of the peace on hand, and that all I have to say is "I do"? And what if I sell a collection of essays someday and I need to go on a book tour and give talks? What then? A book tour is supposed to be a thing of joy, not something to be dreaded. I don't want to spend the whole tour on Valium. And what will my spawn think when, on career day, I feign throat cancer instead of coming to their school to talk about writing?

I think the answer is clear: Toastmasters International.

On second thought, I'd rather be hit by a car.

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