Why I Haven’t Watched My TEDx Talk

Because I will simply look at myself and hate everything I see.

Because the year was 2013, and I still had, perhaps, 40 unwanted pounds remaining on my body. The culprit? Emotional eating. Its cause? Covertly plotting to leave my toxic, cohabiting relationship was much more complicated and had taken a lot longer than expected. I admitted in the talk that one of the first thoughts I had after learning I was selected to speak was How much weight can I lose by June 1st? The sad truth is I was disappointed that I’d had seven weeks to lose weight—to engage in the unhealthy calorie restriction and over-exercising with which I was much too familiar—but, in those seven weeks, I had not given into those impulses, and I didn’t lose any weight.

Because I hated the outfit I picked out. Why did I wear that?! The night before, I spent hours shopping, trying to recreate the look I’d seen other female speakers wear: nice jeans, a feminine top, and some flats. I couldn’t find any jeans I liked, so I chose slacks. I convinced myself I needed to buy a sweater because I hated how my arms looked; they weren’t the same toned arms I once had. My slacks were wrinkled from sitting. The flats I bought rubbed the back of my foot raw. I felt frumpy and was uncomfortable the entire time.

Because I know I will hate the way I pronounced a word, or I will notice the absence of yet another thing I wish I had said. When I originally wrote my talk, I wanted to close with a quote by Molly Crabapple, an artist and writer I had recently discovered. Toward the end of her gorgeous article “Diego, Frida, and Me,” Crabapple has a message for women and artists: “Explore the radical possibilities of facing outwards. Take up space. Be big.” I loved those words. I thought they stated so well what I wanted to say; however, I don’t recall why I didn’t include them. I wish I had. Perhaps I feared I wasn’t an animated or vibrant enough speaker to end in the way I wanted. Perhaps I felt that I didn’t deserve to speak those words.

Because I could imagine someone stumbling across my video one day and saying, “Oh, geez. This isn’t what a TED Talk should be. They’ll let just anybody do a TED Talk these days.”

* * *

Hosted by Western Washington University’s Student Outreach Services (SOS), the inaugural TEDxWWU was curated specifically for the department’s student population: first in their families to attend college, historically underrepresented and underserved, or with high financial need. Students with similar backgrounds to my own.

Led by event organizer Marli Williams, the planning team selected the theme “Renovations: Building Our Future” to apply to this target audience directly. They wanted speakers to deliver messages that would be meaningful for their students to hear. When coming to college, these students often struggle to transition between their home communities and university because the two sites are often in conflict. In the academy, educators often tell students (indirectly or directly) that their previous ways of knowing and being are inadequate. Educators often view students through a lens of deficit, not strength. Our educational institutions ask a lot of our students: tuition and fees, years of study, patience as they navigate bureaucratic red tape, school pride. What educators don’t ask themselves nearly enough: From what rich foundations do our students draw? What aspects of their identities do students feel they must leave at home to be accepted on campus? What parts of themselves must they leave behind on campus to still be accepted at home?

Caught between these two worlds, many students begin to feel that they exist in a space between—trying so hard to fit in everywhere that they eventually belong nowhere. 

Well, I thought, what if I told these students about the deep shame I experienced after finally accepting that I had devalued the lessons my family had taught me because they hadn’t gone to college and weren’t “properly credentialed”? What if I told them about my internalized oppression that contributed to a lifetime of self-erasure?

Yes, I would tell them that.

I thought about impostor syndrome, about feeling inadequate, that I didn’t matter. What if I shared two stories about people who made me feel that I mattered? Two deceptively ordinary interactions with people who have subsequently impacted me so much that my life could never have possibly been the same after meeting them. If nothing else, I would have the opportunity to tell an audience of 150 and an unknowable number of future viewers about George: a man I will never have the chance to know better, but a man who has taught me, perhaps, the most valuable lesson of all my years.

Yes, I would share that.

What if I shared how deeply nervous I was to speak publicly, especially about such vulnerable topics? Someone I deeply respect once said to me, “You know, every time you get up to speak, you always say that you’re no good at it. When you say that, you give away your power. What you want to do is go up there and not let them know you’re nervous.”

No. That’s what you want to do.

As I was living my own story, she created a different story. First, she hadn’t heard what I had been saying. I never once said I wasn’t a good speaker; she had misunderstood, thinking I didn’t believe in myself. I said that I didn’t like speaking in public, and I only reluctantly spoke at events because my role on campus required as much, which is true. Second, I often begin by sharing how nervous I am because I believe there’s already enough posturing. As a result, so many spectators look at the speaker on stage, believing that the speaker must possess some magic that they themselves do not. They think I could never do that! Rather than contribute to more posturing and feign confidence, I wanted to communicate that you can be nervous or afraid or anxious and still speak. So. What if I showed I was nervous, but I stood up there and spoke anyway?

Yes, I would show them that.

Speaking at TEDx, the stakes were high. Like millions, I love TED Talks. I watch them for my own edification, and I’ve used them while teaching classes. To prepare for my own talk, I sought inspiration by rewatching my favorite TED Talks, adding to their existing tens of millions of views. I would have loved to deliver a talk like any of those. As I watched the speakers deliver their talks in a manner that seemed effortless, what began as an exercise in inspiration led to one of comparison.

In the weeks leading up to the talk, I could barely sleep due to anxiety. In late May, deep in my anxiety storm, I met with Marli and asked to use a script and podium. She replied, “That’s not what a TED Talk is. You just need to get up there and own it!” I replied that she, an outgoing extrovert, could perhaps get up on stage and “own it.” I, a shy introvert, don’t own things. Regardless, she told me she believed in me and that I was capable. I left our talk trying to borrow her confidence in me.

After another sleepless night, the week of the event, I left a panicked voicemail pleading with Marli again to let me use a script and a podium. In the morning, she agreed and said she’d make it happen. I was a bit relieved, but only just. Though I hadn’t spoken to God in a while, I sent a prayer of thanks up to Heaven.

The day before TEDxWWU, I stood on stage in front of a microphone, facing the empty chairs where the audience would soon be. At rehearsal, I could barely get through my talk without crying. I bumbled through my script, shaking and in tears. On stage, looking past the bright spotlights to the intimidating 1,040 seat theater, I stopped every few minutes as I got emotionally overwhelmed. Each time I had to stop to collect myself, I cried, “I’m sorry, Marli!” into the microphone. I thought I was letting her down because I wasn’t the confident speaker she had encouraged me to be. I looked out at the rows of seats and saw our speaking coach observing, along with Swil Kanim and other speakers who were waiting to rehearse. I was so embarrassed. Twenty or so minutes later—my body practically vibrating—I stepped off stage. After I descended the stairs, Swil stood up and gave me a body-encompassing hug. And as he held me, we both sobbed. I had just met him. I have not seen Swil since TEDx, but that moment is one I will never forget.

* * *

“Why don’t you like yourself?” my mother asked me at the post-event reception. I was standing in a room amongst 150 people, holding a six-inch, square paper plate dotted with cubes of Gouda cheese and quartered strawberries. How very fitting of my mother to ask such a question at this moment. I had no easy answer. Who does have an easy answer in response to that question? If you do have a response to such a question ready on your lips, I don’t know if I should hug you or be impressed that you can articulate your self-hatred so succinctly. I think I want to hug you.

When I wrote my talk, I thought maybe there was a person in the audience or someone who would later watch my talk on the internet who had experienced some of the same vulnerability, shame, or insecurity as I have. In my talk, I said, “You don’t know who your presence might reach.” I meant that. But, for my mental health, I don’t read comments on the internet, so I won’t know what strangers will think about my talk.

What do I know? I had multiple people approach me afterward, telling me how much they appreciated my talk and how deeply my words and stories impacted them.

At the reception, there was a wall on which attendees could write lessons learned from the talks. An SOS student employee I knew well came to me, grabbed my elbow, and said, “Come here. I want to show you something.” She pulled me to the wall and showed me where a student had scribbled, “I want to claim my education and not just receive one.” I stood there with her and cried. 

No, I haven’t watched my TEDx Talk, and I don’t tell people I’ve done one. I’ll probably never list “TEDx speaker” in my LinkedIn headline or email signature.

But if someone stumbles upon the talk one day and something I said connects with them, then I have done what I set out to do.

— This essay has been excerpted from A Map You Cannot Refold.