Get Your Story Straight, Okay?

I remembered today one of my proudest childhood accomplishments: talking my way onto the speech team in 12th grade.

Sort of.

We had moved to Dubai in August and by September or October I had heard about the Forensics team. A classmate told me about it and I was interested in it the way you are when you’ve never done something that you’ve always wanted to do–like you want to do it, but you’re scared because you just don’t even know how. First, I missed the initial meeting (held in a classroom, at lunch).

Then, I spent a full month waffling about topics. I thought and wrote and researched and changed my mind and thought some more. And all of this was in 2004 so, yes, there was google, but like, the internet just wasn’t that big. There was only so much I could work with.

I tried out several topics on the teacher and each one was nixed–for being too overdone, for being uninteresting, for not being sufficiently compelling. And it’s important to say here that despite all the back and forth, I had all but disappeared for the last month. I knew what not to do and then struggled with what to do. By the time I had a pretty solid start, the other orators were already memorizing their speeches. By the time I had a topic nailed down, it was 3 weeks to competition. Probably everyone thought I had just dropped out altogether.

When I finally walked into his classroom and told him I had something, he responded exasperatedly, like high school teachers do when have too many students and too little time. (And when those students don’t get things done on time.) “It’s too late. Everyone else is already practicing theirs.”

I was apologetic. But, I was also a really quick memorizer, and I was off to a good start.

“All right, fine.” He said it just like that, too, and took a seat. He was poised to just tell me no, though, I could feel it.

I stood at the front, behind his podium, and began my speech. The change in my teacher was visible. His posture went from slouchy to like–like there was a set of strings pulling him up at the ears. He was paying attention, and not just to be polite. When I finished the first page, he stood up and told me with a look of genuine surprise on his face that I was approved.

Three weeks later I made it to finals, the only one of the orators to do so.

I replay that moment now, 12 years later, and see that it wasn’t just surprise on his face. He was impressed. He didn’t let me compete because he was obligated to (he wasn’t) or because he was being nice (he wasn’t that either). He did not expect that to come out of me, and was delighted (and shocked) that it had. Hell, he was thrilled to have me on the team!

I thought about that today and went digging through email to find more details about that day. Was it really only three weeks? Had he thought I abandoned the team? What made me finally choose the topic I did? I couldn’t find any of that. I stressed about it here and there to friends back home, but said very little, except to say that I had finally finished the speech, and that I made it to finals. That’s it. In the story of my life, this episode doesn’t even appear. I say, I didn’t do any activities in high school because I was a lazy bum.


That’s not even true! I was a bit of a lazy bum, yes, but I used to read a ton, and I took piano, and I hung out with friends, and I babysat and held a part-time job and was involved at church and hiked and traveled and summer camped. I had a short stint on the pole vaulting team in 10th grade (or was it 9th?). I studied both Spanish and Italian in high school, too, and when I was in grade school, I learned the Russian alphabet. I would fall asleep listening to Russian tapes. I once started translating a Russian Book of Mormon and it only took me a few words to realize that actually there was a different name for what I was doing: transliterating. I didn’t do activities at school but outside of school I was quite active. And at the start of my senior year (!), I packed up everything I knew, said goodbye to my friends, and moved to the other side of the world.

Look, I know it’s me, but that’s a good story. I want to meet that person.

That I didn’t recount this miraculous tale to anyone at the time is evidence that I bought into the narrative that I was a lazy bum. I was a lazy bum who didn’t get crap done on time because I procrastinated (I have a few emails about that). I didn’t tell this story because it wasn’t a story worth telling. I did my speech late. I competed. I didn’t place. So unworthy a story was it that for years, I forgot that that sequence of events ever even happened.

It’s only today, because I came across an exercise in The Artist’s Way about childhood accomplishments, that I remembered it. I am really proud of that moment. He was about to cut me from the team, and within a fraction of my performance he had completely changed his mind. How have I gone so much of my life not carrying that pride around with me?

I’m coming to think that we are born knowing all of our truth. The years of expectations and reprimands and norms and rules and shoulds (so many shoulds) serve to both grow us and to divert us from what we already know about ourselves: that the things we enjoy as kids, and that we’re good at, though not always overlapping, will always be the things we most enjoy and are good at. Keep doing them. Transform them if you will (there’s no forensics league for professionals) (wait is there?), but do them. And when you’re through: get your damn story straight.

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