When I was in high school, St. Thomas Aquinas HS in New Jersey, I often performed, singing and playing guitar, at in-school events and talent shows. At the time, my older sister, Maureen, (the brilliant one: all the nuns would ask me, "are you as smart as your sister?" to which I'd want to reply: "nope. I'm the family idiot." But I bit my tongue!)--would sometimes accompany me, singing harmonies and often-times would sit in the front row of the auditorium, ready to yell song lyrics up at me, when I would eventually go blank onstage. I had terrible stage fright at the time, though it generally wore off once my fingers warmed up on the steel strings and my breath regulated itself into belting out bluesy numbers, usually by the third song. But for the first and second songs, my sister would scrutinize my face in the spotlight, waiting to catch the first sheen of that deer-in-a-headlight glaze coming over my eyes. I would search her face out in the darkness, panicked, strumming the C chord a little longer than necessary, and you'd hear a voice piping high over the musty seats: "Come to me now/and rest your head for just five minutes/everything is done..." from "Our House." We became known for this part of our sister "act," and the students and teachers in the audience good-naturedly laughed as I echoed, in full throated song, the snatches of lyrics rushing through the air at me.
Here's the lovely thing about doing something well for a long time: Though I've never gotten fully over having stage fright, especially at the beginning of a "performance," I've learned to channel that adrenaline jolt that surges through the memory like a huge eraser, making me forget my name, where I am, and what the hell I'm doing onstage with a big chunk of wood and steel strings in my hand. Better yet, I find myself no longer worried about the audience and how they'd react if I make a mistake, flub the lyrics, sing an off note. Sure, I still love to please a crowd, want to leave them wanting more. But, I don't fret if I have an off night. I know this is a gift carried down from my grandparents and parents; everyone in my family loved to sing and play musical instruments. The Irish gathering was never complete without a rousing couple of hours of song--Uncle Maurice on the piano, Kieran on the guitar, my dad with his banjo and harmonica, mom singing like a professional chanteuse and all of us singing unselfconsciously.
Years of being paid to play guitar and sing--and after singing for the governor of New Jersey, for a crowd in Bruce Springsteen's first stomping ground, The Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, singing for priests and college students, and belting out the blues in a bright red dress in front of Yusef Komunyakaa in Provincetown, MA--all of this built that ineffable sense of confidence and inner calm. I was fully, utterly embodied in song. I was fully myself when I sang. You didn't have to like my music or my singing--but I KNEW I could touch people with this talent and your opinion? Well, that was your own.
I felt this steadying inner confidence about the way I taught literature and poetry and composition for a long time, too. Though I also started "shaky" in the field and had a tremendous amount to learn (and keep challenging myself every year to do more and learn more about this art of teaching that I love), I became good at it. Not in a passive, sponge-absorption kind of way, but by actively seeking out those who knew more than me, teachers I admired, asking about good books to read and great ways to share them in a classroom.