For a brief moment, silence filled every square inch of my high school’s colossal auditorium, my rapid-fire heartbeat the only sound I could manage to hear.
As my trembling hand carried a microphone stand across the stage, my weightless body pushed past the scarlet red curtain, revealing thousands of ecstatic smiles in my direction. The audience’s applause broke the eerie silence as I stood at the edge of the stage, my anxiety telling me to run backstage because I didn’t deserve this moment.
But as the blazing spotlight hit me and the music began, I had to tell my anxiety to stand down. I took one deep breath and spoke.
That night, I stood in front of my classmates, friends, and family and, for the first time ever, performed spoken-word poetry.
The moment was, more than anything else, petrifying.
By no stretch of the imagination would I have called myself a poet. I wrote my first poem only months before, and nearly every piece I wrote since then was kept private.
In the week leading up to that night, I thought I wasn’t ready for everyone to hear what I’d written. My anxiety crept up again, telling me I wasn’t a great poet and nobody would bat an eye at my writing.
And I believed it wholeheartedly.
But nevertheless, I wrote poems whenever I could, and I had this drive to share them, with only my inhibition standing in the way.
So when I saw a flyer for my high school’s annual male beauty pageant, complete with a talent portion, I saw it as a chance to finally unveil my poetry.
I spent the following weeks writing, editing and rewriting a poem about my time in high school and my goals going into college. It was a terrifying, nervous set of weeks in preparation for when I’d stand in front of my entire school, my body shaking, afraid of each smile in the audience to break into laughter.
For a few moments on the stage, I was lost in the words I was speaking. It felt like I wasn’t reciting lines I had painstakingly memorized, but the words were coming from the deepest parts of my heart.
And then, as effortlessly as the lines came to my mind on the stage, I forgot them just as quickly. In front of the virulent heat of the stage lights and the stampede of stares, I stumbled reciting one word and immediately lost my train of thought.
For a few seconds, I stood there frozen, trying to piece together the words I spent weeks on, but nothing came to mind. I wondered if I overestimated myself, if my poetry wasn’t strong enough or if I wasn’t a good writer.
But every inhibition I held evaporated when I heard one person shout my name, cheering me on. To this day, I can’t recall whose voice it was, but that one second of support was enough to uplift me.
Soon enough, the words came back to my head, and I recited the rest of the poem verbatim — not missing a syllable.
I came in third place, but rankings never mattered. What meant the most to me was hearing all of my friends, family and classmates tell me how much they loved my performance.
Even in class the following Monday, my history professor, someone who inspired me to major in education, told me he had no idea I was such a talented poet.
I wouldn’t say that my writing got better because of that night, but it gave me the confidence to start sharing my poetry with others. I submitted my poems to literary magazines and scholarships. I even won the Johnson Senior Memorial Creative Writing Award for poems I’d written after that performance.
I did slam poetry again later that year at a school competition, and the nerves that once incapacitated me had faded away. Even today, I’ve had two of my poems published in Temple’s Hyphen Literary and Art Magazine, and I’ve created an Instagram account exclusively to share the poems I’ve written.
In that one night, I’d won control over my inhibition and anxiety, and my trophy was a moment of strength, a singular moment of feeling like I was more than just a petrified kid reading poetry to his entire high school.
In that first breath I took and every breath I’d take in the three years since, I was a poet, nothing less.