For the longest time, I debated using a prop, especially one as blatantly patriotic as the flag.
It was ROSTRUM week at my primary school. Children stood at the head of their class and gave a short speech on a topic of their (let us be honest, parent’s) choice, their voices undulating with the shaking of their knees. By the time we got to our closing remarks, no amount of air conditioning could protect us from the sweaty lips and erratic eye twitching that are the hallmarks of the Australian heat. We were, in equal parts, unprepared and overly prepared. The night before, we stood on furniture, dizzy, our parents staring at us expectantly, making us make and remake our opening anecdotes. Yet, we, not one of us, knew what a ‘rostrum’ actually was. My preparation went one step further; for that one week the internet became my temple. There was no public speaking forum stone left unturned. In hind-sight that probably did more damage than good.
The night before my speaking rounds, I stood, flustered, over my tattered and sweat stained flash cards and a thinning cotton Bangladeshi flag. I was going to be educating my class of predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Chinese students about the Bangladeshi Liberation War. The facts were well researched, the emotions strategically intoned, and yet the speech was incomplete. “In 1971, the West Pakistani Army…uff,na…In 1971, on the night of March 25th…no,too dark…In 1971, my country was liberated…”. It was not a good night. In an effort to inject some panache into my speech, I debated over adding a prop. Nothing says patriotic diatribe like a flag. The only dilemma: all the public speaking gurus advised against it lest the prop detract the audience’s attention from the speech. Sadly, that wasn’t the only problem.
A pro tip for giving a speech is choosing focal points. Focusing on certain people in different parts of the audience engages everyone in the room. So it didn’t help that I was half-blind. I had noticed my eye-sight waning a few months earlier. It was getting harder to see the board and recognize people from afar. I could’ve gotten prescription glasses, but I was hiding my problem, specifically from my mother. I was afraid that she would take away my books – the small script and yellowed pages, and my dark time reading, the main contributors to my myopia. In any case, anyone in any audience was a blur to me and there was no point to these focal points.
There is a certain calming effect on the speaker when you have someone you know and trust in the audience: a family member or friend. My family couldn’t make it: my mum had classes and my brother was too young. Having entered school in the middle of the school year in Canberra, by which time the cliques were constructed and enemy lines drawn, I was having trouble making friends. I talked to my class mates but our interactions were strictly cursory. I wasn’t close enough to anyone to make their presence in the audience a comfort. Ultimately, on the day of my speech, I faced a sea of people I could not and did not know.
Probably the lowest point was when we lost the microphone. In the beginning, the students would give their speeches using mikes to their classes which numbered, at most, thirty. But by Wednesday, my speech day, the auxiliary cable for the speakers in the classroom failed and we were relocated. I was prepared for this failure, in mind if not in reality. My forums told me to enunciate and that my voice will carry my speech home. But I was a shy girl in a foreign land; the chances of me vigorously enunciating were slim – the power of the microphone was my lifeline. And I was drowning.
In an effort to counteract the need of a microphone they relocated us to the main hall. The cavernous hall, that served as our auditorium, had great acoustics but I did not. The teachers instructed us to project our voices. Louder. LOUD-ER. I could not mold myself to ‘project’. To exacerbate the matter, the main hall also served as the gym. At the start of P.E. classes, we would push the chairs against the walls and pull out the racks of balls and makeshift goals from behind the stage, and at the end of class the hall was returned to its original state. When my turn came, the hall was filled with the older classes in the middle of P.E. When I finally made it onto the stage, I was faced with a sea of despondent faces, sweaty overalls and the distinct smell of ridicule.
That day, I gave a speech on a stage, where I was expecting level ground. I gave a speech in front of sixty, where I was expecting half of that. I had no comforting microphone to even out my shakes and tremors. The walls and people were blurry. However, in that moment of flailing nervousness, I realized my resolution was not. I had come to give a speech and, by God, I would give it.
“In 1971, my home country, Bangladesh, earned its independence, surviving the ravenous clutches of the West Pakistani Army……”
It would be remiss of me to say my speech went well. It went terribly. Almost no one beyond the front row could hear me and, at the end, one boy’s constructive criticism was, “May be try and make your speech a little funnier”. (Sigh)
However, like at the end of almost all essays, I can honestly say I learnt a lesson. Things will go wrong (roll credits) and we just have to make do. Our shyness, blindness, or indecision cannot hamper us from, not just public speaking, but taking on challenges, and growing. So be strong, God knows I tried to be.