In the fourth grade, Mr. James dubbed me Turns Red in the Face (a name that, according to the film Dances with Wolves, played on the Native American custom of naming people based on their actions. That’s what the movie is about, right?) It wasn’t incorrect. The name, I mean. My face did indeed turn red whenever I was called on and forced to speak. (In fact, it’s still true today.) Most of the time, the nerves and embarrassment kept me from communicating effectively. I was just too shy. When I was called on to speak in class, even the physical characteristics of my voice were not adequate: too soft, too quiet, too squeaky, and too high. The eyes staring back at me, waiting for a coherent answer, took my breath away—not in the good way, but in the bad way that kept the much needed oxygen from reaching my panicked brain. This usually resulted in an incomplete answer filled with long, awkward pauses that may or may not have actually made any sense. By this time, my face usually felt as if it couldn’t get any redder (is that a word? It must be, Word didn’t mark it wrong). I know I’m not the first person or the last to have suffered from public speaking anxiety (actually, any kind of social interaction that required me to speak to another human being), but I didn’t know that then. You’d think that this was the most embarrassing thing that could happen to a shy kid. But it wasn’t.
A couple of short years later, the SAME teacher made me cry in front of class. Okay, maybe he didn’t—but, I did cry and he indirectly caused it. I don’t think he did it on purpose. We were supposed to memorize some poem in the fifth grade and by this time, I figured he knew better than to call on me, but he didn’t. For some reason, he had a lot of faith in me. So, he tells me to stand in front of the class (with a friend to make me feel better) and I see all those eyes staring back at me. My brain skipped the panic stage and went directly into hibernation. I felt my face burning up, turning red—living up to my given name. The class waited for me to say something and finally my brain made a quick reappearance and said, okay let’s at least try giving them a smile, that’ll make things better. My lips, tightly sealed, moved into a crescent shape, and my eyes squinted a bit. But, I wasn’t smiling. Hot tears began running down my face, which made me panic even more; which made me lose my breath even more; which made my face even redder; which made me freeze up even more; which made Mr. James panic too and quickly told me to sit back down.
The next day, a boy from class approached me and asked, “Hey, why did you cry yesterday?” I looked at him with a puzzled look on my face and replied, “Hmm, I don’t remember that. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
And so began a new psychological defense mechanism that would stay with me for years: denial.