Speak up. Speak clearly. Speak slowly. These are the three sentences I’ll remember forever.
As a child, I struggled with communicating because of my thick Nigerian accent combined with a speech impediment. My fear of people judging the way I spoke made me timid at home, at school, and on the playground. I came from Nigeria to the United States at the age of two, and I learned English primarily from my parents. The only person I was naturally comfortable speaking to was my twin sister.
My fear came to a head in third grade in Ms. Richard’s math class. We were required to work as a group to solve problems using cubes. Ms. Richard saw me at the edge of the table, working on the problems alone, rushing ahead of my group. She pulled up a chair and asked why I wasn’t working with the others. I looked at her, but I couldn’t give her an answer.
She encouraged me to share my answers with the group, so I did. Frustrated, one girl said, “I can’t understand you. Say it again.” My legs started to shake. I didn’t know how to present myself clearly. After my second failed attempt, Ms. Richard pulled me aside. “Why don’t you like sharing your ideas?” I didn’t want her to know that it killed me inside every time I had to speak. It had become a burden to express myself. I needed help.
I walked through the hallway toward my new speech teacher, trying to read her body language as she asked me how I was doing. Her comfortable smile alleviated my nervousness. We entered an abandoned room. I felt like a prisoner whose crime was speaking English with an African accent. She told me to speak slowly, and gave me a wooden stick to put in my mouth to calm my quick tongue. After the lesson, she gave me vanilla pudding, her sign of telling me that I did well.
My speech teacher helped me deal with my frustration with the world. I had thought that everyone talked to me only to make jokes about the way I spoke. Completing my therapy taught me to have a mature mindset in reacting to criticisms. I began allowing myself to believe that people wanted to talk to me because I was funny or interesting –intelligent, even. I also learned not to worry about what people said, instead finding ways to improve myself. Whenever someone asks me to repeat myself now, I remember her words. “Speak up. Speak clearly. Speak slowly.” It works.
Recently, my mentor, Reggie, encouraged me to be part of a group skit at my enrichment organization. I was supposed to play the teacher, instructing pretend students how to solve a math equation. I was so nervous walking up to the stage; I felt like no one would understand me and that my instructions would be pointless. Just then, I remembered my speech teacher’s words, toughened up, and started. Everyone clapped at the end of the skit, and Reggie told me he’d never heard me speak that loudly before.
Now, I walk around with a smile on my face everywhere I go. The smile is the result of my breakthrough, using my difficulties with communicating with others to find who I am and to display my personality. Through my journey of isolation and frustration, I learned not to let criticism intimidate me from achieving my goal. I continually strive to improve, and if I ever hesitate, I simply remind myself: Speak up. Speak clearly. Speak slowly.