Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Grace in the Face of Adversity / I'm okay at the words.


For a Drama and Creative Writing combined honours graduate, I am wildly unprepared for and unnerved by public speaking. I'm used to writing pieces and publishing them online, that's comparatively piss easy. I'm used to the anxiety and apprehension before clicking 'publish' – will she get offended? Have I described this accurately? Will he read this one, too? Does that sentence sound stupid? That's totally normal to me by now.
I like to think that after around five years of blogging, I've got better at deciding what to publish and what to keep to myself. I've learned that some people need to be smacked or snogged in person and others need to be harshly berated or lovingly immortalised in pretty font for all to see; some events are better forgotten while some should be celebrated accordingly in a happy slosh of mindless alliteration; some feelings and memories must be cast aside or brought to light in lengthy posts featuring honest wording and, no doubt, dozens of hapless similes.

Blogging may not be my most flawless forte, but it's a passion I've definitely got down. Public speaking, however, is a whole other ballgame. I don't by any means dread performing in front of an audience. I've participated in my fair share of graded Drama performances over the past seven years; GCSE, A Level, BA. For GCSE, I was the bride's best friend on a hen night. AS Level, I was Rose Maloney for a monologue and Cissy Franks for a group performance (see below, massive shameless post about my love of the play Punk Rock). A Level, I found myself playing a psychotic invisible girl with no name. For my degree I've played a deranged bouffant clown, a bitchy schoolgirl, a slave to a sea sorcerer, a very camp male sailor, a citizen under constant video surveillance in a horrific futuristic society, and J.K. Rowling. I was always someone else. That was manageable, not always convincing, but not that hard to do. Being myself in front of an audience is terrifying.
A month or so ago, I was asked on the phone by the principal of my secondary school and my old Head of House there if I would like to do a presentation about what I've been through recently at the school's presentation evenings this year. My family said yes for me, I was suddenly faint with fear but agreed because truth be told, I'd do anything for my old school and the lovely senior members of staff – especially after my old house raised around £300 from a non-uniform day and donated it to my hospital (specifically the neurological centre), and my esteemed ex-Head of House called me a couple of days after my big op for a chat.
I wrote my speech, I was told not to sugar-coat anything, so I didn't... But I didn't exactly go too far into detail either. I asked if I should be spinning the story so I could add a moral or a message at the end as I wrapped it all up; y'know, I don't want to be a massive malignant downer on an otherwise joyful awards evening, slapping the prize winners with some particularly nasty reality before they step up to receive their trophies and book tokens. I'd much rather be a shining example that 'shit happens but it can be okay in the end.'

The first presentation I made on October 16th went rather splendidly... I think. I spent every evening in the week leading up to it slumped on the sofa half-asleep after a heavy shift making milky coffee and glorified slushy milkshakes, writing and editing furiously. I was still scribbling out and rewriting the odd sentence as I rode the train to and from Winchester in Grad Week; I would read the whole thing out loud (in a very expressive whisper) over and over again changing which words I emphasised and working out when was best to take a breath, in my seat on South West and Southeastern trains.
I turned up at the school an hour before the ceremony of sorts was due to start. I had a cuppa in the office with Mr W. We gossiped about other teachers and pupils, shared stories of recent personal experiences, then I moaned about my job and he became the sixth person to tell me to quit. 'Twas bloody lovely. The principal walked in at one point and actually uttered the words 'Oh thank God you're here, Grace!' It's been a very long time since anyone said that, much less someone so important. It was quite a pleasant shock. I remember rooting for that guy to get the job as our principal, back when he was a lowly Maths teacher. Our whole year group were behind him, and we celebrated for weeks on end when he was given the title he so totally earned.
Mr W kept pestering, asking what I was planning on saying. I assured him it was all printed and rehearsed, but I wasn't telling. I just said it was my story with a moral. This was mostly because I dedicated a paragraph to the school and him specifically, and I wanted that to be a nice surprise.

I saw my favourite teacher when entering the hall, the rather epic Finchy who taught me English and Drama at GCSE – the wonderful character who gave me full marks for my performance as a drunk bridesmaid and would brew the loveliest lattes at lunchtime for me and my close friends, the Coffee Club in Room 38. I hugged her without thinking it through for a second, caught up as best I could before I had to be ushered to my seat up the front on the side of the stage. I told her I hoped I'd make her proud, after all, she planted the Drama seed in my mind and got me into it, and she taught me how to write to the best of my ability, how to get my point across. I owe her a whole lot.

I sat down beside a lovely redhead girl and a nervous but sweet-looking boy. Both in the worse school houses, but I'll overlook that. I was startled to discover that the presentations would be taking place before awards were... Awarded. I wasn't sure which I'd rather – have people listening to me speak after the prizes were given, checking their watches, with numb bums and minds wandering to their lovely home awaiting them, or before, when all they wanted was to see their child get a little recognition for their excellence in Geography class or they were desperate to walk onstage and get those book tokens and a round of applause for their hard work in the Music rooms. I figured before was best, people would still be alert and paying enough attention, even if they hated me briefly for delaying the proceedings.
We were welcomed by the senior members of staff, who sat opposite me on the other side of the stage in all their finery sipping water and shuffling papers – it was charming. My old music teacher spoke, then the head of governors who is coincidentally the mother of a genius sweet girl in the year below me as well as a regular customer in the cafe, then BOOM, time for the presentations. Oh, that came around quick. I shuffle my own papers in my lap, bracing myself, suddenly blushing hot but utterly frozen. The lovely gal beside me sang 'When I Fall In Love', hitting the high notes and bringing the goosebumps on all around. I assumed the young fella would be next in line, but then my name was called from the lectern.
My lovely pal Mr W had the ingenious impulse to give my piece a name as the principal put the programme for the event together, and he nailed it. Grace in the Face of Adversity. I do love a good bit of wordplay on my name – have I mentioned that both my names are words? Yes? Okay then – and it was just darned awesome to be given a title. It also said next to my name that I was a 2009 Leaver – that hit me hard. I'm a mature adult now, five years out of the playground. Ha.

At some point, after my next and last evening speaking publicly, I'll post my speech on here for y'all to read, if you wanna. No pressure. I've read it to my bestest friend when he tracked me down in the big city crying into my coffee; I read it to the boyf after we went on a dinner date, and as previously mentioned I've read it to complete strangers on a train when I realised my expressive whisper had become a regular volume of conversation and the women in front of me had turned in their seats to peek through the gap and watch me.
Like I said, I think it went well. When I finally caught my breath a few paragraphs in and realised there was no rush, I could speak clearly and slowly, I could look out into the audience and catch the eyes of teachers and students if I wanted, there was nothing to be afraid of... It all came together. I felt especially confident as I was wearing my graduation dress and silver brogues – a winning combo. I have a good track record of being onstage in this outfit. I also wore my hair down, as part of my unusual plot twist – after years of relentlessly pulling and scraping my hair back into a boring bun, maybe a high exuberant ponytail, I've found I like it better loose and brushing my shoulders. I may or may not have started wearing it down in the first place because I was self-conscious about my scar. Whatever.

After telling my story in the speech, feeling the silence in the room pressing hard, I got to the last page and thought oh thank goodness, this is the good bit, meaning the part where I talk real to the kids, preach a little in the nicest way and remind them all how lucky they are etc, etc. I smiled more and more as I looked out and saw the students staring back at me, not necessarily in awe but definitely paying proper attention. It was a new feeling, speaking out and making an impact. I suddenly didn't want it to end.
It ended. There was a whole lot of applause. I smiled and smiled, backed off the podium and stepped down, walked along the front row and sat back in my esteemed seat. The teacher nearest to me said it was great, grinning; the applause went on and on; my old music teacher onstage locked eyes with me and I stupidly gave her a questioning thumbs-up, which she returned with a big nod. The super-important senior members of staff looked on from their table, all smiling, all shining. After the young lad played a gorgeous melody on the piano up front that I somehow hadn't noticed in all my anxiety, we were ushered to the back of the hall. As I walked along the aisle, I was met with a beaming face at the end of each row. Parents nodded respectfully or just outright grinned and whispered at me. I saw a friend of mine in the back row and stopped to chat, she told me she was excited when she heard I'd be here. My GCSE Drama/English heroine grabbed my hand from her seat and brought me in for a cheek-smacker, saying how beautiful it was and how proud she felt – how she hoped she had contributed to my brilliance, even just a little. I reassured her she did, she did a lot. Mr W treated me to a hug, then immediately demanded to know why I'd mentioned him in my speech. I believe I said something like 'well duh,' followed by 'I don't know what I was thinking, I got carried away...' My Science teacher smiled and gave me a thumbs-up, saying he loved it. I found my mum who'd snuck in at the last minute, and we sat together to watch the kids be celebrated. The principal gave his speech and said I was 'inspiring and brave'. Without thinking I waved my hand dismissively, to cover up the fact that I was weeping a little. Students and parents kept tapping me on the shoulder and congratulating me. Two teachers told me their own stories – one had a similar thing twenty-five years ago, the other had a scare with one of his daughters, and so my words meant a lot to them.
I giggled at how the prize giving was a lot like my graduation – students' names are called, they shake the principal's hand, walk up a step onto the stage, receive a ton of applause, take their envelope from the head of governors, step down and are ushered back to their seats. It's cute, and the most wonderful idea – celebrating the kids, egging them on. This school is so good to its students. Sure, when I was being kicked through corridors and belittled in the changing rooms it didn't seem like it, but when I freaked out about my Art exam, worried I had no friends and threw up in a sex education lesson, there was always a member of staff there to help me out.

Afterwards, Mr W is escorting my mama and I off the premises – probably because it's the only way he can ensure we actually leave and stop nattering away to everyone we bump into – and telling us just how fantastic he found my presentation. He ridiculously said 'it was the best thing I ever heard', and I demanded he retract that statement immediately. He then corrected himself, putting his newborn son's first cry just before my mad monologue. He then told me to never make him cry again, and take him out of the speech, and I refused to make any promises. We parted ways at the gate, mum and I headed for the car, and we debriefed on the way. It all felt fuzzy. As we approached our car (Star the CRV), we heard a shout 'Grace!' behind us. We turned and saw a mother in her mum-mobile, pupil in the passenger seat in his Claverham uniform. She shouted 'You are an inspiration!' The tears sprung up yet again.

My next speech delivery will be on the 27th November, at 6:30pm. This time will be a little different. Instead of speaking to a room full of parents, teachers and Year 7s and 8s, I'll be speaking to a room full of teachers, students and this year's leavers – the ex-Year 11s, my sister's year group. Students who are now studying for A Levels or diplomas, doing apprenticeships and discovering coffee, most of whom will know me personally or recognise me all too easily. Some of them have been in my house, some of them have been driven around in my car. Some of them messed with my little sis, and some kept her going. I have to edit my words a little, change them to suit the high school grads, but also brace myself for the inevitability that on the night I will look out into the crowd and see faces I know looking back at me. It's like when we performed our first year monologues in Drama lessons at college to the whole class, a few days before we were due to perform them to the external examiner. I would take the meanest stingiest external examiner a million times before I'd take my friends and peers. Heck, I'd take the nine hours of brain surgery again right now and it would probably be easier than confidently communicating a message to a hall packed out with teenagers and their parents.
It'll probably be fine, though. What's life without the occasional challenge? If it's not looking good, I can always whip out the scar and scare them stupid. I wouldn't do that... Although I've done dumber things when in a panic.
So, wish me luck maybe? Thank you, darlings. I'll be backstage, breathing into a bag.

In all seriousness, in life things are only as scary as you make them. I say that with the utmost sincerity and I have a massive backlog of incidents to prove it. Push yourself, work hard, take a step out of your comfort zone, and reap the rewards. I got applause, pats on the back, hugs all round, a cup of sweet green tea and a beautiful bouquet of thank you flowers. I also got a generous helping of confidence. Boom, baby.


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