Though people often refuse to believe me, and I've never understood why, I am a very nervous and uncomfortable public speaker. I know I do it a lot, sometimes every day of the week, but I've never gotten over the nerves and the discomfort that comes from putting myself, purposely, on display. Whenever I tell someone they almost always say, 'That's really hard to believe,' with a tone that tells me they don't believe me at all. Well, in fact, it's quite true. I get wildly nervous almost every single time I get up to speak. I have to take a sleeping pill the night before a lecture and an anti-anxiety just before giving the lecture. It's now part of the routine, I accept it. I've been very cautious about my use of these medications and now trust myself, I only use them at those two times, never at any other.
What makes me really, really, nervous is lecturing in front of people I know. When I have to speak at the staff retreat at Vita, I'm wild with nerves. I mean, I'll have to see these people again, and again, and again. So the cost of failure is so much higher than flubbing in front of strangers who you get to leave behind - who only visit you in haunted memories of a bad performance. So, the cost is so much higher when there is so much more to lose.
Well, I learned something on Friday at a lecture I gave here in Toronto. I didn't know my friend Susan was going to be there so hadn't prepared myself that someone from my personal life (and professional life too, I suppose) would be in the audience. I saw her, she saw me, I waved, she waved back, she came and gave me a hug, I hugged her back. It was nice. As she went back to take her seat, I noticed something. When I looked down into myself, I didn't find the extra parcel of fear that comes from lecturing in front of a friend. It wasn't there. I searched for it, I looked under my stack of unexpressed regrets, I moved aside my pile of unresolved issues to see if it were hidden there, I even opened the dreaded drawer of disappointments and dropped opportunities, just to see if I'd misfiled the fear there.
So there sat Susan, looking up at where I was sitting. The very same Susan I have tea with. The very same Susan who'd brought me a bag of home made granola bars because I'd gleefully guilted her into making them for me. The very same Susan who shares friends and interests and life stories with me. Yep, she was there, but the fear wasn't.
I realized, with a shock, that it would be OK to fail in front of her. I knew, just knew, that if I did, she'd still be there, she'd still have tea with me, she'd still make me granola bars, she'd still call me friend. I knew, just knew that our relationship had moved in to the rare category of 'I'm safe with her.' It felt amazingly good.
And suddenly I realized how difficult it must people for people with intellectual disabilities, who's primary disability is one of learning, to live in a world where they must try, and fail, in front of others. Who must live with the judgement and disappointment of those who are supposed to care. Who must be at the end of other people's patience and understanding,. Who must feel the enormous, crushing tire tracks left on their souls when the eyes of another roll. For I wonder how many people, cause I know I didn't, ever really work at teaching people with disabilities the first and most important lesson: you are safe here with me, you are safe to try, you are safe to fail, you are safe to try again. Who bothers to teach children with disabilities that though they may have to struggle with learning they will never have to struggle to earn, or deserve, or be worthy of love and respect and caring? Who bothers?
Somehow Susan bothered.
Somehow she taught me that her care for me wasn't contingent, wasn't based on my performance, wasn't based on something as trivial as momentary success or momentary failure. I don't know how she did it. But she did.
And because she did, her presence there on Friday comforted me. Instead of feeling fear, I felt that I had someone standing resolutely in my corner. Someone I could trust.
Now I have a goal.
I want to ensure that I spend at least a little bit of time, every day with those I supervise, with those I support, with those I teach, letting them know something about me. Something about my character. I want them all to know that I honour success and I honour failure - that I'm honoured that people around me risk to learn, risk to try and risk to grow. That I want to be a person that stands with them, in their corner. That they need not, when I'm in the room, tuck a parcel, labeled 'fear' in a dusty corner of their heart.