I stood at the podium at center stage and surveyed the auditorium.
The balcony was empty, as were most of the first floor seats, save for my 20 or so eighth grade classmates.
“O.Henry,” I began. “Who was he?”
I paused after the first sentence and gripped the side of the podium, startled by the sound of my voice in the microphone. As someone who rarely spoke above a whisper, I was stunned that the volume of my voice was seemingly booming, echoing off of the hard wooden seats and cracking plaster walls. I shook less and less with each line I delivered before returning to my seat, trembling as the adrenaline left my body.
At the end of the class, Mrs. Howard tapped at my Jansport book bag as I walked out of the auditorium.
“You have a knack for public speaking,” she said and I nodded shyly before walking to my next class.
I think we were both surprised by the clarity and strength with which I had spoken, since I was loathe to speak up in class or make eye contact when speaking to a teacher. That speech was the first time I realized that I really had a voice. And I didn’t know quite what to make of it.
Talking was always a problem for me as a student. My dad would come home from each parent/teacher conference and give me the same lecture. “They say that you are a good student but that you need to speak up,” he would say. “You need to raise your hand more. And you mumble too much. You need to E-NUN-CI-ATE.”
For added emphasis, he would over-enunciate the word enunciate, just to be sure I got the message. I did get the message, I just didn’t care to speak up in class. I didn’t want to raise my hand, I certainly didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and the last thing I wanted to do was use my voice for, well, talking.
This story came to mind last week when, for the 10th time of the day, someone misheard my directions for an exercise.
“What is a Bonnie Raitt squat?” Suzanne asked one day in our team training class.
“Um…I don’t know, but I asked you to do a body weight squat…” I replied.
We now do Bonnie Raitt squats in class regularly.
“What is a lame-ass squat?” Another asked on a different day.
“Well, actually a landmine squat,” I said, as I shook my head, thinking of my dad’s yearly lectures.
Finding my voice has been a life-long process and certainly not one that’s come easy. It took a number of seasons coaching high school and college kids before I realized that I needed to treat every practice and game as though I was on stage. That I needed to flip a switch and turn my voice and my presence “on” so that I could command the presence that a coach needed to effectively coach.
I don’t write about this today for any other reason than to acknowledge that finding your voice can be really difficult. Whether it’s finding the voice to advocate for yourself with a doctor, the voice to stand up to your boss, the voice to speak up for your children or your family, it can be really difficult to put yourself on stage and find the ability to speak up. It can be startling to hear your own voice ringing out in anger, in excitement, or in delight.
Often when I write on this site, I do so to give voice to something that someone else might be thinking or struggling with. About body image, about mental health struggles, about life.
But how much better do we feel when we have some solidarity - some understanding that others have been where we have been - have felt what we have felt. So we try, I try, to give voice to struggles and to pains and to some joys as well.
You have a voice.
Remember that you have a voice.
And as much as possible, surround yourself with people who support you and give you the courage to use that voice.