I was sixteen years old and didn’t know how to speak in public.
Having moved to the United States in fourth grade, I used to be self-conscious simply speaking. I survived school presentations by practicing, practicing, practicing until I appeared to be spontaneous and relaxed. But public speaking—in front of an audience of adults I had never met—well, that was like asking me to pee on demand in front of a room of scrutinizing strangers. I just couldn’t.
So when the Pleasanton/Dublin chapter of Soroptimist International invited me to speak as a recipient of the Violet Richardson Award for volunteer service, I was thrilled but terrified.
I had prepared a short speech about the Lemonade Project, my service campaign teaching financial literacy to younger students. It was a simple speech, mentioning some hardship, but not so much to the point of overwhelming. I wanted it to be acceptable, to be light-hearted and sad at the same time, but only acceptably sad.
The moments leading up to my part, I rehearsed my speech in my head for the one-hundredth time. But as I walked towards the podium, my vision blurred together and my hands were too stiff and my voice was too weak and I think all the blood must have drained out of my brain, too, because I forgot half the things I planned to say the minute I opened my mouth but I figured I should have said something, anything, since I was already speaking at four hundred words per minute, but I didn’t want my speech to be too sad—only acceptably sad—so I glossed over the personal challenges and focused instead on the success of the Lemonade Project itself: that I had recruited a team of sixty volunteers, that we had secured $2000 in start-up grants and improved the financial literacy of twelve hundred kids to date, and thank you, Soroptimist for supporting my project and—
—Oops. Sometimes I forget that it’s okay to breathe when speaking.
When I stopped, I looked into the room of adults looking back at me, searching for some meaning between the statistics I just rattled off.
Then, in midsentence, a particularly vivid memory resurfaced in my head: I was in fourth grade, just recently after moving to the United States. It was the first time I had summoned all my courage to raise my hand in class, but I couldn’t find the right words in my meager English vocabulary so I ended up stuttering in front of my classmates for thirty seconds that felt like thirty years—felt like it’d be thirty years before I could ever muster the courage to speak up again.
So I started crying.
I started crying in the middle of my speech because I felt like I hadn’t done justice to the fourth-grade me: I hadn’t spoken for her. Instead, I had let what I thought people wanted to hear—the statistics, the numbers, the success stories—to overshadow the voice of the girl who had overcome immense language barriers since she first moved to the United States.
But it was passion that had driven the younger me to try, try again until I learned to speak English just as darn well as any of my classmates. It was passion that had pushed me to overcome my fear of public speaking in hopes of inspiring younger students to be smarter, money-savvy consumers.
And as I stood in front of the Pleasanton/Dublin Soroptimist chapter that evening, it was passion that filled me with the confidence to speak again to the audience of adults before me—about learning English, about public speaking, about how difficult it was to inspire others to simply care about financial literacy—and finish with a standing ovation.
That night, I realized I probably wasn’t destined for a career in public speaking. Or at least if I was, I still had long ways to go. But I felt so much better because I had finally done justice to my fourth-grade self: I had spoken for her.
So thank you, Soroptimist, for inviting me to speak as a recipient of the Violet Richardson Award. Thank you for believing in the Lemonade Project. And thank you for giving me the confidence to tell the story of a girl that needed to be told.
Soroptimist International is a worldwide volunteer service organization for business and professional women who work to improve the lives of women and girls, in local communities and throughout the world.