My first bout of stage fright, the one that inaugurated my real problems, occurred when I was sixteen years old and in English class at a boy’s private school, beginning to realize I wanted to be a writer. Our English teacher that year was a tall, vaguely handsome British man, a graduate of Cambridge, who had been a shot putter and discus thrower on the British Olympic team. He was popular around school as a soccer and track coach, an inspiring figure in general.

12-4-80-1-2But as an English teacher he was a disaster. Frequently unprepared, he would sit on the edge of his desk in silence for minutes after the class bell rang, wincing at his own cigarette smoke while trying to conjure from the depths of memory whatever work we had read for the day. When this effort failed him, as it often did, his only recourse was to have us read aloud from our weekly compositions. It was an experience that I dreaded, for good reason. I was just beginning to find my voice, starting to see writing as my life’s work. I was experimenting with techniques that were beyond what I could handle. And I was surrounded by classmates who didn’t care for writing at all, had the usual adolescent scorn for pretension, were merciless with sarcasm. They were, in other words, sixteen-year-old boys, and I was desperate to avoid their reckoning. For an entire semester, I had managed to avoid being called upon. And then, on a dismal, rainy afternoon near the end of the semester, motioning to me with a wave of his cigarette, our teacher asked me to begin.

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t choke out a single word.

I’d been met by a paralyzing wave of stage fright, larger than I’d ever experienced. My face began to flush. My palms began to sweat. My heart beat with such quickness that I couldn’t catch my breath; my chest wouldn’t expand. The harder I tried, the more it closed in on me: the panicky feeling fed on itself.

“Are you all right?” our teacher asked. “Are you ill?” The class itself was silent, expectant. Minutes seemed to go by in which the only sound in the room was the scrape of shoes on the wooden floorboards.

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