When I was in middle school I wasn’t a model student. I never raised my hand to ask questions or volunteer to answer them. I wasn’t focused and I was addicted to gossip. I would spend lots of time in class passing notes and whispering to my friends.
As a young kid, teachers told my parents I was outgoing and bright. But in sixth grade I got interested in boys and gossip and in seventh and eighth grades these became my priority. I was so consumed by boys and gossip in class that I stopped listening to my teachers, so I didn’t want to ask questions that showed everyone else that I wasn’t paying attention. I thought that would make me look dumb and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of boys. So I became one of the quiet students in the classroom.
When everyone had to answer a question, I would wait to the end so I could repeat someone else’s answer, even if it wasn’t what I thought. We had just finished reading Of Mice and Men and the teacher asked us if we were in George’s shoes, would we have killed Lenny to save him from suffering. Almost everyone said they would have killed him. I would have encouraged Lenny to run, but I was too shy to say that. If I had said I disagreed I might have had to talk even more about my opinions, which I hated doing. So when it was my turn to speak, I agreed with everyone else.
One time my English teacher asked me to read a paragraph. I began and then my teacher interrupted. “Can you please speak up, sweetie?” she said. “I can’t hear you.” I was embarrassed, because it was true. I tried my best not to be so quiet, but I was so shy that I just couldn’t. My teacher had to ask me to speak louder every time I had to talk that year.
Speaking in front of the class felt like a death sentence. I got so nervous that if I didn’t understand something I knew was important, I would ask my friends to ask the teacher for me. Or I would make my teachers come to my desk and I would whisper my questions to them.
During eighth grade, I started liking this guy who was a friend of mine and he liked me, too. We talked and passed notes in class a lot. I even failed a few science tests because I didn’t pay attention. The only reason I got a B+ in that class is because I was able to do extra credit. Without extra credit my grade would have been in the D range.
My teachers were frustrated
Sometimes a teacher would say in front of the whole class: “How can I not hear you now, but I can hear you when I’m across the hall when you’re talking to your friends?” That would make me think about how I wanted to change, but it seemed impossible.
I worried about trying to change because I thought that my classmates would think I was being fake and trying to be someone I’m not. I didn’t know how other people felt about me and changing might make them not like me.
My parents wanted a new school environment for me. They didn’t think I was getting challenged enough and they also wanted me to get over my shyness. Most of my middle school classmates were going to the high school that was run by the same charter organization, but my parents decided to send me to a different school, New Village Charter High School.
When we went to an orientation my dad asked if the school helped improve public speaking and how. They told him about the yearly “exhibitions,” which are presentations that require us to speak in front of students, parents and teachers. These sounded horrible to me. But after hearing this my dad’s mind was made up—I was definitely going to New Village.
I was so angry that I told my dad, “Don’t think that I’m going to be doing that because I don’t care if I fail.” I didn’t want to go to New Village. I was upset that I was leaving my friends and that this was an all-girls school.
I figured the education would be fine, but socially it wouldn’t be the same. When I was younger I imagined that when I went to high school, I’d have a boyfriend who would wait for me outside of my classes and we’d go to dances. But I thought New Village would be a gossipy environment (girls can’t help it) and it would be hard to find people to trust.
Throughout the summer, I tried to get my parents to let me go to the same high school as my friends. I told them about how my friends said the high school had great teachers. I told my parents I would get good grades and focus on school. It wouldn’t be like middle school when I goofed off too much and never spoke up in class. But their decision was final.
A few days before the first day of school, it hit me that I was definitely going to New Village. I could choose to be upset or I could be the student I’d always wanted to be. I decided that when school started I would speak loud enough that my teachers could hear my voice and I would ask questions for myself. I knew if I didn’t change I would look back and regret wasting four years of high school. I wouldn’t learn anything and then I wouldn’t get into college and I wouldn’t get a good job and I wouldn’t be able to support myself.
The day before school started I was nervous. How was I supposed to talk in front of everyone without being afraid?
But I was determined to change. Right away this was a different kind of school. During the first week one of my teachers, Mr. Shin, emphasized to us that we had to speak out. He told us, “It’s important that you understand what you’re learning because if you don’t, then what are you doing here? You’re going to fail classes just because you don’t want to ask something.”
I had never heard a teacher say we would fail if we didn’t do something. Mr. Shin’s speech was so straight up with us. It made me realize that being afraid of asking questions or even sharing my own opinions is a big problem. From that point on I knew I had to speak up. I needed to be a new Kari who talked in class even if I was afraid.
I overcame my nerves
About a week later I got my chance. Mr. Shin had us play a vocabulary game. He would say a word from our vocabulary list and we had to give the definition and use the word in a sentence. If we got one right we would win a glow-in-the-dark bracelet. I had my eye on the pink one. I had doubts, though, and felt like my voice was going to crack as soon as I spoke. I thought to myself, “What would the new me do?” The new me would participate in class discussions.
Mr. Shin said the first word, “bonhomie,” which I knew meant cheerful and friendliness. My hand shot straight up and so did a bunch of the other girls’. Mr. Shin looked at me with wide eyes and was nodding his head that I had raised my hand. He saw that I was first and called on me.
I was nervous but I knew the answer and I knew how to use it in a sentence. “Bonhomie means friendliness,” I said in my normal speaking voice. And then I used bonhomie in a sentence. I was surprised I was able to get up enough courage to say it out loud.
I answered a couple more and realized speaking in class wasn’t a big deal. When the other girls started telling me, “You’re so smart,” I felt good. I won the bracelet and two others. That game was the push that I needed to become more confident. After that, I asked questions when I didn’t know something and I would volunteer to answer questions without worrying if I was right or wrong.
The small classes and not having boys around helped, too. There are usually only about 10 students in my classes, so when we have discussions Mr. Shin calls on us when we haven’t spoken. And without boys I don’t worry about sounding stupid in front of anyone.
I still had challenges though. For our midterm exhibitions we had to talk about our backgrounds and interests for 45 minutes in front of our classmates and teacher. I thought it would be easy so I didn’t prepare.
But once I got in front of my class I froze. When I saw everyone staring at me I couldn’t stop thinking that I was going to mess up. When I saw Mr. Shin writing notes I assumed he was writing something bad. I was so nervous that I started feeling dizzy. I spent the whole 45 minutes sitting in my chair hugging my knees to my body. When I tried to speak louder, I couldn’t. It was like I went back to being middle school Kari. Mr. Shin said that sitting curled up into a ball made it look like I was hiding. He was right.
When I found out I’d have to give another exhibition at the end of the semester, I was terrified again. I wished my parents hadn’t sent me to New Village. I didn’t tell my parents how I felt though, because the reason they wanted me to go here was so I would learn to be more confident in situations like this.
I’m slowly improving
Mr. Shin made us create agendas for these presentations that would outline all the things we were going to talk about. I knew I would be able read from my agenda, so I didn’t practice. But when I started and saw everyone staring at me I was nervous again. I did my best to speak loudly and I made sure to stand up this time. I did OK, but my friends said I was so red that I looked like a tomato. My parents and teacher said I spoke clearly and answered the questions well but I should have prepared more, because I finished my presentation in 15 minutes when I was supposed to speak for an hour. I spent the rest of the time answering questions from everyone. I learned my lesson. Next time I will spend more time preparing.
Last summer, I didn’t like the idea of going to an all-girls school that put so much emphasis on public speaking. But now I realize that my parents made a good decision sending me to New Village. At the beginning of the year Mr. Shin told my parents I didn’t talk much in class, but now I’m not afraid to ask questions. My hope is that I become more confident in school. It’s hard to believe that I’m the same person.