It’s been a while since I’ve written anything for you. The past month has been jam-packed with work and learning and life. To be honest with you, I’ve hardly had time to fiddle or sing, which should tell you something. Every waking hour from the eighteenth of September to this moment has been all-consuming.
On the 18th, I flew from Indiana to Flint, Michigan, early in the morning. To say I was excited wouldn’t come close to covering it. I was going to meet world-changing psychologists, adventurers, musicians, survivors, and more. The opportunity could open up doors for me, and besides; how cool is that?!
To say I was nervous beyond belief would also not be showing the full picture. I was going to speak in front of anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people, and I had zero experience with public speaking. That’s enough to make anyone nervous. Also, I may or may not have underestimated the amount of work it would take me to prepare, and have spent a rushed three weeks scrambling to get everything wrapped up (not the norm for me, so I had a hard time coping). I practiced my speech under my breath during both flights and my five hour layover in Chicago. Like I said, I was nervous.
After the first day, having watched the pros go up and do their talks, I was caught somewhere between being even more anxious and resigning myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be nearly as good at it as they were. Newbies seldom are.
Two hours before I was scheduled to go on stage, I found myself sitting in a workshop session with David Rendall from The Freak Factor. He was discussing personal strengths and weaknesses, the way they’re often linked, and how we can harness what society labels as our “weaknesses” and turn them into strengths. It was all very interesting, but I couldn’t keep my attention on him. My mind wandered. The auditorium was big. But not as big as the one I’d be speaking in. I noticed a girl, three rows forward, who was doodling on a sheet of paper. Everyone else seemed to be paying rapt attention. I remembered that I’d read somewhere that public speakers have about two minutes in which to capture their audience, otherwise all was lost, and started worrying about whether or not I’d be able to do so.
I snapped out of it, and looked up. A young woman, workshop papers in hand, was watching me. “Sorry,” she whispered, “but can I sit by you? I was admiring your jacket and wanted to say hi.”
“Um, sure.” I was wearing my “battle armor.” You know, for extra confidence. Lace up green boots, patched-together jacket, homemade hip pouch, felt hat. Oddly enough, even though it makes people stare at me, it’s twice as comfortable and a bit uplifting on tricky days.
She took the empty seat next to me, fell silent. She was petite, bird-like, one of those obviously kind, beautiful people. Her dark hair was cut short, and she wore one of the bright green conference shirts, Hero Round Table Flint printed in bold letters on the front. After a moment, she asked my name. I wish I could remember hers. “So what brought you to the conference?” she whispered, as David Rendall made the audience laugh.
“I’m speaking,” I replied.
She was surprised. Most people were. We talked for a bit, about various things. My jacket. The other speakers. Her plans and dreams. The conference. After a while, we fell silent, watching the speaker. I started daydreaming about my speech in a few hours. What if I passed out on stage? Said something completely stupid? Took one look at the crowd and ran? Maybe I should have brought a cardboard sign saying Splash Zone: First Three Rows in case of vomiting… I was feeling queasy now, actually. My head was spinning, and I felt like I was going to be sick.
They say that when you get nervous, you get “butterflies” in your stomach. It’s not true. I had electric eels in mine, squirming around with evil glee and violently shocking me. Whoever came up with the “butterflies” analogy must’ve suffered from a terrible case of wishful thinking. I involuntarily shuddered, hard, and hugged myself. I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my life, I was tired from the travel and late nights at speakers’ dinners, and I felt completely alone.
A gentle voice at my shoulder said, “Hey, you ok?” I laughed uncomfortably. Yep. Fine. Just nerves. She looked at me sympathetically, and started digging in her purse. “Here. You want an Altoid?”
How did she know? How could she possibly have known that some of my favorite memories center around Altoids? That the sharp cold bite of mint is one of the things that somehow calms me instantly? I’m not entirely sure why, but having that taste to focus on sort of takes my mind away from any present problems.
I took an Altoid, gratefully.
Sucking on it, I marveled. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Honestly, I still can’t. But that simple action: a complete stranger showing kindness and generosity to me when I felt alone and nervous… It blew my mind.
Incredibly, out of everyone I met at the conference, out of all the world changers, incredible speakers, inspirational creators, thinkers, and doers… to me, the most beautiful of them all was this young woman who took a moment out of her day to make a change, not to a mass of needy people or to the economy or world peace or what have you, but to an eighteen year old in a homemade jacket who was just one of the crowd.
Of all the “heroes” at the Hero Round Table conference, my hero wasn’t the Auschwitz survivor, the ninja, the psychologist, or the desert runner (though they were all pretty darn cool). My hero was the woman no one saw; the quiet one in the crowd; the girl who meekly went about her business and made a difference in the lives of others in a thousand quiet ways. I hope she knows she’s beautiful.