Sunday, November 14, 2010

From 7th Graders to 70 Year Olds

I recently spoke to a seventh grade English class at my old high school. I was asked to speak last year, but declined. Nerves got the best of me.

A lot of people ask if I do book tours or speaking engagements. No. Partially due to, you guessed it, nerves, but mainly because I’m unknown. Many of my close friends haven’t even bought my book (and November 7th was the one year publication anniversary). Would there be huge turnouts at bookstores for an unknown author? Nope.
Still, I had to overcome my fear of public speaking, and so when the request to speak to the seventh graders was reissued, I gave it serious thought. Everyone said the same thing: What do you have to be nervous about? They’re 13 year olds!
To quote Sterling Archer: Duh and/or hello. Seventh graders are precisely what is so frightening. Kids are harsh. What if I bombed? They would laugh at me, tease me, and call me names.
This phobia of mine had to end. So I accepted the offer to speak to the students. Oddly, the more I expressed my nervousness to friends and colleagues, the less nervous I became. Until I walked into the classroom. Then I got nervous again … until one of the students walked up to me, rolled up his sleeve and flexed his biceps. Check ‘em out, he said.
The class was one hour and thirty minutes; I wasn’t sure what I'd have to discuss for that entire period. But an hour and a half later, the kids were shaking my hand and thanking me. They asked numerous questions about health inspections, the struggles of immigrants, how to spot a clean restaurant, and the writing and editing process. 
They asked mature and intelligent questions that I, as a former seventh grader, would probably never have asked. As I was leaving the school after visiting my former teachers, I ran into one of the students and thanked her for her great questions. She fessed up, explaining that even though she was genuinely curious, she really asked so many questions to get out of geometry class. I probably would have done the same thing. 
Feeling good and relieved, I congratulated myself for getting over my fear of public speaking … until I was asked to speak to a book club comprised of women in their seventh decade of life. I thought I would be more relaxed around mature adults and based on how mature the seventh graders had been, I was convinced my evening with the book club members would be a breeze.
I began by thanking them for buying my book and supporting me. I told them that Amazon book sales were important for an emerging author. Much to my surprise, they laughingly volunteered that only three of the eight members purchased my book! The three copies were circulated to the other members. I’m pretty sure that’s not how a book club works. You support the author by buying his book and he gives you an hour or two of his time to talk, answer questions and sign autographs.
But hey, what do I know?
These ladies spent most of the evening trying to learn the actual identities of the restaurants I wrote about. A few members were touched by my stories about the hard-working immigrants. One woman asked a good question: If the chef or management doesn’t change, why does the food go downhill after a period of time? 
After thirty minutes of book-related talk, the conversation amongst the ladies changed to the apartment complex where we live. I was in the laundry room the other day and Saul walked in! OHHH! NOT SAUL! I CAN’T STAND HIM. Me either.  Questions asked of me, which went mostly unanswered:  Who do you like/dislike? Who are the cutest kids in the building? Will you run for the board? Then, back to the book! Which restaurants are the cleanest in DC? Where should and should we not eat?
My phobia towards public speaking diminished somewhat after my two engagements.  I’m no George Clooney from Up in the Air, but I will say this: I preferred talking to the seventh graders.