The comfort of a small, intimate circle of desks in my high school’s AP English Language and Composition class couldn’t calm my nervous, hammering heart, which seemed to accompany my impulses to speak. No matter how much I tried to convince myself the nervousness was unfounded—there are only 12 of us! You have friends in this class! You’re smart!—I still found reasons to silence myself, keep my lips together, and tuck my ideas about A Streetcar Named Desire away to be elucidated on paper; there, at least, they were organized and confident, their words meticulously chosen. I’d get warm, my mouth would get dry, and I’d wait for the nervousness (and the opportunity to speak) to fade away. Needless to say, my confidence in classroom discussions continued to drop.
So where was I supposed to shed this fear I had in the classroom? Prior to getting settled in my Literature Humanities class, I assumed the answer would be Columbia—a fresh start, with fresh faces in the classroom and the knowledge that my ideas were good, good enough to get me here. This was what the Core is about: discussing and engaging with my peers, adding my voice to the conversation. But it’s February, and as I reflect on my first semester, my discussion fright is undeniably still there.
Part of the problem was how much freedom I gave—or didn’t give—myself to think through things in front of others. When I did speak up, during one of those first classes on the Iliad, my comments might as well have been a presentation—I didn’t allow myself the freedom to venture into discussion with an undeveloped thesis. I felt bad taking up time to translate my thoughts into coherent sentences as I held the floor, even though I nodded patiently when other people struggled to do the same. Too many times I overthought myself into a nervous, tight silence. Later, I felt self-conscious and guilty about that silence.
My insecurity about my discomfort stems, in part, from knowing that it isn’t a we’ve-all-been-there sort of experience. There are people who get excited about baring all their theories on Confessions to the class. People who feel perfectly comfortable taking the five minutes they need to explain what they’ve been scribbling in the margins of their book since the class began.
But discussion fright is an experience you can get some people to talk about. And in speaking with others who are shy about making class contributions, I’ve come to see it not as something I managed to get into Columbia in spite of, but rather as part of the diversity of students that make up any well-rounded academic space. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that I wasn’t the quietest girl in every seminar, nor the only one who viscerally reacted to encountering the word “presentation” at the end of a syllabus.
A couple of months into my first semester, I spoke to a friend in my Lit Hum section, Emma Gould, about being quiet in class. She told me that for her, getting ready to speak “is a feeling like ripping the Band-Aid off.” That expression felt perfect to me. I still find that I talk myself into speaking, nudging myself for minutes on end to rip off that Band-Aid.
I think now about how close-reading the Aeneid on paper was fun and natural—no counting down and yanking, just going. Turning to my right and exchanging ideas with a partner was fine. But coaxing myself into confronting that tongue-twisting discomfort of making my interpretations public-—as public as you could get in a Lit Hum section of 13 people-—was never going to be smooth, just as there’s nothing suave about yanking off a Band-Aid. Grappling with Emma’s words involved coming to terms with what I perceived to be graceless entries into class discussion. It entailed learning to be okay with plunging into the uncertainty of raising my own voice with a quick, awkward jolt-—a suddenly raised hand and a blink at my teacher after an hour of patient listening, then the cautious wading into my own ideas.
There are days where I get through speaking thrice and days where I barely muster a “just to add on to that...” in the last five minutes of class. There are classes where I get the Band-Aid half off, opening my mouth and starting, but then shutting it again as soon I as can. I speed through one idea and leave its obvious corollaries—right there in my notes!—unspoken. There are days when even trying to rip a Band-Aid off feels a little too impossible, and I’ve learned not to beat myself up over those.