My parents came to America from the tiny island of Föhr in the North Sea off the coast of Germany and Denmark. My father worked as a clerk in New York City delicatessen stores and by the time my two older brothers and I were born, he had his own store. He dealt with the customers while my mother worked in the kitchen, making rice pudding, custards and potato salad. Their work ethic was incredible. And they never sought applause or praise for it.
To the contrary, they poked fun at other people—especially those they perceived as bragging or showing off. I adopted their cultural aversion to drawing attention to oneself, and throughout my early school years, I spoke when called upon but rarely volunteered to speak.
That worked until one day in fifth grade when I needed to stand in front of the class and summarize a news article. In anticipation of this event, I awoke feeling nauseous—what my mother called a “nervous stomach.” I imagined all sorts of things that could go wrong: I would forget my place, my classmates would laugh at me for some real or imagined transgression. Nothing catastrophic happened. But I can still recite the start of that speech. I spoke in a complete monotone, every bit of spontaneity squeezed out of my delivery.
This experience didn’t cure my fear of public speaking. Over the years to come, I dreaded everything from raising my hand in a classroom as a student to speaking out on behalf of my own children at a PTA meeting. Even at press conferences that I attended as part of my job as a magazine reporter, I hung back and watched as other journalists shouted questions.
The only thing worse was speaking before an audience of the people who knew me best, like my family or close friends. I imagined they would see right through me if I acted too full of myself (my mother’s words).