With music blaring from my Bose mini-speaker, I stare into the mirror. I pull my hair back into a sleek ponytail but quickly decide it makes me look too casual. A bun is safer, so I go with that, striving to project a more refined image.
I tried on two dresses earlier. This fact is disconcerting. I’m not the type of person who typically frets over what she wears. I’m more comfortable with brains than beauty, and I hardly imagine Sir Isaac Newton fussing over what to wear while coming up with infinitesimal calculus.
Thinking of him, I recall my visit years ago to his boyhood house in Lincolnshire, England. The tour guide took us around the grounds and into his home. Both the tour guide and the multiple signs advised us not to touch anything, but as we were turning to leave his bedroom, I snuck my pointy finger out and quickly grazed it across his bed. Maybe I was hoping for some mathematical mojo to seep into my skin?
I could use some today. If not Newton, maybe I could channel Coco Chanel. She managed smarts, success, fashion, and femininity. She was once quoted as saying: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” I believe that to my core. Be authentic. Be real. Be yourself. Except for today. Today I want nothing more than to fit in and belong.
Time to drive to school, but first, a quick detour through the drive-through at Starbucks. The sweet guy who knows me by name is smiling as he asks, “First day of school for you, isn’t it, Tamara?”
He’s right, of course. I mean, it’s not my first day of school EVER. But still, it’s my first day of school this year. It’s exciting. It’s stressful.
After circling like a hawk for a parking space, I ninja parallel park on a curve, fling my attaché case strap over my shoulder and scurry to the building which houses my first class. Who in their right mind wears strappy heels to school? The heels were my rebellious attempt at sassiness with an otherwise conservative, polished outfit. Manoeuvring from smooth surface to smooth surface to avoid catching a heel in a crevice, I feel like a contestant on “American Gladiator.” If I can just get to the building without breaking an ankle on the cobblestone pathway, I’ll make it to the Eliminator round!
Victorious, I enter the building and am immediately overcome with a scent. I cannot place it exactly, but I’ve smelled it a thousand times before, and there’s nothing else quite like it. It simply smells like a school. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s school. There are school floors, but the ceiling is high with soaring skylights streaming in the outside world. The paintings on the walls are beautiful, and I wonder if any of the artwork was done by students or alumnae.
I head to the basement. The windowless aspect will play to my advantage, because I’m easily distracted. Last year I had an advanced writing class in a building with five-foot-high windows, and I had to force myself to not stare out on the beautifully manicured garden full of thousands of purple flowers.
I twist around a few hallways and open the classroom door. With eyes darting around to see if I know anyone, it’s clear almost every chair is filled. This brings me simultaneous relief and added anxiety.
But I belong here, I remind myself. I studied for years, was awarded scholarships and honours, aced numerous exams and earned my seat in this room.
Just be authentic.
There’s a buzz in the room. Some students are chatting excitedly. Others are sending last-minute texts on their cell phones. A few appear as if they just rolled out of bed. I see a few I’ve been in class with before, and they wave or nod.
I am starting to let it happen, to let myself acknowledge how giddy I feel. There is something about the start of the school year which brings hope and a fresh start. It’s like January 1st but without the late-night repercussions.
I find my spot which is strategically placed so I can see as much as possible. It’s a nice room, bright with U-shaped tables. At the front of the room is a virgin whiteboard, ready to be deflowered by a dry erase marker, but as of now devoid of the diagrams, terms, and models this class will demand.
“Welcome to Public Speaking. We’re going to cover a lot of ground this semester, and I’m going to help you find authenticity and confidence in your own unique voice,” I hear a familiar voice say. “I know some of you dread this class, so let’s wipe out a couple of top fears. Stand up on your desks. Yes, you heard me right.”
I hear the moans around me. But we do as we are told, climbing onto our tables in our sneakers and boots and even one pair of high heels, getting closer to the drop ceiling and track lights.
“Now introduce yourselves and enjoy chatting.” We do. Some talk about how crazy it is that we are standing on tables in a classroom. “See, there! We conquered two of the most common fears out there—the fear of heights AND the fear of speaking in public—all in one fell swoop. There’s nothing we can’t accomplish!”
There are a few laughs in the room.
“Alright, get down before I get fired,” the professor says dryly.
“This semester, you’ll gain perspective from my time as a journalist, and I Iook forward to sharing some public speaking tips I learned from interviewing people. I have some great connections with people in the profession much more interesting than me, so we’ll Skype with a few to give you an idea of how powerful your voice can be.”
This is going to be a cool class! I sense the energy in the room.
I allow myself to be authentic. I smile, and I smile big.
They smile back.
“My name is Dr. Tamara Wandel,” I say. “By the end of next week, I promise to know yours.”
A class later, a vending machine lunch of veggie chips and M&Ms eaten at my desk, more classes and a few office drop-ins, I’m tired and ready to go home to my own kids. But first, I pause to reflect. It doesn’t escape me what a privilege it is to be in this profession. Whether we’re four or forty, whether we’re going to class as a student or a teacher, the start of every school year brings a second chance to grow and be the most authentic, best version of ourselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tamara Leigh Wandel
Dr. Tamara Leigh Wandel is a professor at the University of Evansville in Indiana, USA. She has published in numerous books and journals and teaches communication-related courses for
undergraduate college students.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2019 issue.