"Hey! Don't you make a fool of yourself! Get down immediately from the stage!"
The words were directed towards a boy studying in the fifth grade of his school, who had just forgotten his mugged up speech on the occasion of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's birthday. No, it was not like the boy did not prepare well. He had. But the sight of two thousand students along with teachers standing in front of me was too overwhelming for him. The moment he started speaking, he saw someone laughing in the crowd and that was it. He completely forgot what he was about to say. Instead, he stood there like a statue unable to say, unable to move when the words from a senior English teacher struck him like thunder.
He moved away slowly and got down from the dais. He was nearly falling over as he could not see the stairs clearly. The view had been blocked by the sudden flow of tears that welled up from nowhere. He broke down.
"Hey, Rajeev! It's okay buddy!"
That was Nisha standing by, consoling him. His best friend. But Rajeev did not say anything.
Next month the parents-teachers meeting was scheduled which was attended by his father. Mr. Mukherjee was usually a jovial person but that Sunday, after coming home he was not in a good mood.
"Sakshi, are you around?". Sakshi was Rajeev's mom.
"What is it?"
"What can I say? Embarrassed at how your son has been doing at school! Last week there was a speech he needed to give. Apparently your son messed it up completely."
"Oh! Is it?"
"Yes! His teachers were saying he does okay with writing, but he is not even close to speaking it well. And you know, they put the blame squarely on us! Said we needed to practice speaking English with our son at home! Of course, it did not help that Ritu, Priya, Ajay all those kids speak such good English. They gave their examples!"
"But how can we help? I mean I just know elementary English and you too..."
The conversation went on and on as Rajeev overheard from his room. He felt sad, felt small that he could not speak as well as some of his friends. But what is it that he could do! Not that he could not speak, but in front of a huge audience, oh, it was a different game altogether!
His teachers told him to focus on being able to speak before the mirror. And he did fine there! He could not understand how speaking in front of a mirror be the same as speaking in front of a large audience. But anyway he practiced and practiced. He figured it would not be easy. And he shied away from speaking on stage on one excuse or the other.
Meanwhile, he did well while writing, there he had no issues. He breezed through essay writing competitions in multiple languages with ease but still avoided speaking on stage.
Meanwhile, a recitation competition was arranged where the house warden compelled him to participate. He was in two minds now, but after excelling in written English, he was more confident than before and wanted to try this. Day and night, he mugged up the poem. Once his father even heard him murmuring it in his dream. He was that serious about it. He rehearsed innumerable times.
The D-Day arrived. It was a jam-packed crowd in the school auditorium. Rajiv's turn came, he got up on stage. He started well, reciting with all his heart out. But then something happened. At the corner of the auditorium, he saw a small girl, probably second standard, smiling at him. And that was it!
He forgot whatever he was supposed to recite. To lessen the embarrassment, he took out the piece of paper that had the poem written down and just read through it. But the damage had been done. The competition rule clearly stated that participants had to recite on their own without referring to any written material.
He got down from the stage. It was a repeat of the past. He had faltered once again at the same stage from where he was asked to get down a few years back. He had conveniently 'made a fool of himself'.
He felt terrible, covering his face with his hands, struggling to contain tears of disappointment and shame. His house warden came to console him but he just did not wish to speak to anyone, just wanted to be left alone. He was so cross with himself. He decided to not speak on stage ever again!
The next couple of years went by and he avoided speaking on stage. He knew he would be a mess, the confidence had been totally shaken.
But then a certain opportunity came, an opportunity to become a prefect. This, he did not want to miss. It was considered to be a prestigious position and students looked up with lots of respect. So he decided on becoming one. It was not that difficult as his off-the-stage performance had been well appreciated throughout the years, but, he was still worried if stage performance was a criterion for this role.
Apparently it wasn't, at least based on his first few weeks and Rajeev breathed a sigh of relief. His parents were also very happy at his achievements and the teachers had been certain that the boy had no stage presence, so they no more worried about it. Not everyone speaks on stage anyway, so what's the big deal!
But Rajeev's one of the responsibilities as a prefect was to ensure that every day someone should prepare a speech on something and present it. He got it done nicely and even kept a backup for any day that someone was unable to turn up. So it was smooth. The house warden was happy too.
But one fine day there was an issue. The student who was supposed to prepare the speech failed to turn up. Worse even, his backup, that Rajeev had arranged also did not come to school. It was 15 minutes to 8 a.m. and Rajeev had no one who could deliver the speech. The house warden was clearly not happy at the turn of events.
"Rajeev, you should have seen this coming? How come both of them are absent on a single day?"
"Sorry madam, none of them gave me any hint about it."
"Fine, so who is speaking then?"
There was around one minute of silence, though to Rajeev it seemed forever.
"I will speak, madam!"
"What? You? Are you sure?"
Although he had said yes, he had no idea how to pull it off. Two thousand students today as well, just like many years before. He scanned the crowd, that same teacher who had told him to get down from stage was there as well. Oh! He was a senior now! It would be a huge embarrassment if the same treatment was meted out to him this time.
He closed his eyes and started deciding what to speak about.
Once his name was announced, he opened his eyes and went forward. He checked the microphone sound for a moment and then began.
"Good morning everyone! Today I have come here to speak, but I don't know what I'll speak about. You see, the guy who was supposed to come today, failed to show up and he did not even bother to inform us beforehand, which is why I am here. All of you probably know me as someone who cannot speak well, which is true. I cannot speak well. I wish I could. But I try. I try my best to speak, I try my best to be a responsible speaker. Note that word, 'responsible'. I feel I need to talk about responsibility, I feel I need to talk about commitment."
And he went on elaborating on why responsibility and commitment were needed. There was silence all around as Rajeev's voice boomed across the premises.
After around ten minutes of speaking, he finally stopped and there was a huge round of applause coming from every corner. He looked at the teacher who had once told him to get down from the stage. He was applauding too, with a smile on his face.
That day he did not win any prizes, did not win any contest, but he had defeated the inner him that had surrendered long back.
Fast forward to twenty years later.
As a corporate trainer for a multinational organization Rajeev's responsibility included training hundreds of people in every batch which included every nationality one can think of. The trainings were sometimes face to face, sometimes on online platforms. But he never failed to impress the audience with his superb speeches and skill transfer capabilities.
Today he was going to receive the "Best speaker" award from the Vice President of the organization and while waiting in the front row of award winners, all these memories suddenly came out of nowhere. He couldn't recall the name of the guy who had failed to turn up at school for his speech, he wished he could. Rajeev wanted to send a "Thank you" note to him and dedicate this award.