It was a sunny April afternoon in 1996 and the students and faculty of my high school in Cameroon, Africa, were staring at me with their arms folded. I was one of three candidates campaigning for the post of senior prefect (student government president) and it was my turn to make a speech in front of the entire school.
My disciplinary record was sparkling clean, my grades were good, and I had been a student at the school for six years. For these reasons, officials at my former high school approved my candidacy.
But there was one problem. Despite being a good student, I had developed a reputation as a very shy person, someone often seen but seldom heard, and a man of few words.
Days earlier, I had been campaigning fervently at school, shaking students’ hands and making short comments along the way. But that afternoon’s speech was a different ball game.
“Jackai, please don’t disgrace us,” one of my classmates whispered to me minutes before I took the podium, fearing for the worst. I couldn’t let my fear of public speaking cause me to embarrass my supporters. I walked up to the podium, immersed myself in a completely different world and ignored the several hundred eyes fixated at me, anxious to see what would happen.
I gave my speech with a confidence and eloquence that shocked the principal and critics in the student population. I received tremendous applause when it was over. The election’s results were out the next week and a longtime dream of mine came true. I obtained 772 votes, defeating both my rivals who trailed with 400 and 236 votes respectively. In mid April, I was installed as senior prefect of my high school.
But when I arrived in the United States in 1997, I retreated into my shell and in the years since, hid away from situations that would require me to talk to large crowds. In retrospect, it seemed much easier for me to get away with being shy in my country than it is in the United States.
American culture encourages people to be overtly outspoken and aggressive, but in my culture – which stresses the importance of being polite and humble – such an attitude is perceived as condescending and rude. In the United States, there aren’t that many holes for shy people to jump into and many individuals are quick to assume that a shy person lacks confidence; few people bother to think a person can be shy but feel comfortable in his or her skin. In that respect, shy people are often looked down upon and taken advantage of.
Then there was the time I walked to the podium of a crowded auditorium at a farewell reception for my older sister, who had graduated from medical school and was leaving Philadelphia for Maryland to be with her husband. My brothers had spoken a couple minutes earlier, and not many people expected me to step up to the microphone.
“It’s been five years since I did much of any public speaking,” I said, to tremendous laughter and applause. Once again, it felt as if a huge burden had been lifted off of my shoulders.
Jackai M. can be reached at Jean_paul_2500@yahoo.fr.