Up until the fifth grade, I loved reading aloud in class.

I had always enjoyed the act of reading, regardless of whether I had an audience, but also I just thought I was good at it. I didn’t stumble over the more challenging words, unlike some of my peers. I projected and never mumbled. I was careful to speak steadily, with proper elocution and cadence. When teachers asked for volunteers to read a few paragraphs during our lessons, I was strategic about it. I waited to raise my hand until we arrived at a section that was both lengthy and had a higher degree of difficulty.

Perhaps I was acting like a bit of a show-off, but I think it’s healthy for an 11-year-old girl to have that kind of confidence. Unfortunately, a teacher shattered that confidence.

Ms. Butler, as I’ll call her, was one of the most unpopular teachers at Blessed Sacrament School. She had red, splotchy skin and her breath constantly smelled like peanut butter and cigarettes. It was uncommon for her to get through a lesson without coughing and hacking, which was probably related to the peanut butter and cigarettes. Even as kids we could tell she didn’t want to be there

Ms. Butler taught science and religion. Rest assured, these subjects were not taught in conjunction. This Catholic school did not preach creationism. But we did have a prayer before each of her classes, which a different student would read aloud to the class each day. Before I go into what happened, you should know these prayers were not simply a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father”; these were readings from the Bible as well as some kind of a parable detailing a moral dilemma kids our age often faced. Prayer could take five minutes or longer, depending on the reading.

On this day in question, it was my turn to give the reading. Before class started, Jayme Cartwright and I were sitting in our seats, talking, and we began to laugh exceedingly hard about something, something that I can’t remember. We were probably laughing about how hard the other was laughing. Then Ms. Butler told me to start the prayer. So I walked to the front of the room where her metal lectern stood and flipped to the day’s date in the prayer book. I cleared my throat ad read as confidently as I always did, steadily making my way through the payer, proficiently enunciating the words.

But then I looked up. Jayme and I locked eyes. She was still laughing. I smirked and felt my laughter bubble up from my stomach, my voice starting to shake. I tried to cover it up with a cough, but it didn’t work.

Ms. Butler’s voice cut through me.

“Pull yourself together!” she yelled at me.

I suddenly felt the weight of everyone’s eyes on me. My lips dried up, my palms were slick with sweat, and as I attempted to continue, my voice cracked under the nerves. That’s when Ms. Butler yelled for me to return to my seat. She picked someone else to finish the reading and I felt humiliated.

The anxiety I felt at that podium that day followed me for a long time. From then on, my voice shook and cracked when I read aloud. I stopped raising my hand to participate. All through high school, and even the beginning of college, I was overwhelmed with nausea prior to giving any presentation. To this day I am quite terrified of public speaking.

I think about that incident in Ms. Butler’s class often. I can’t help but think that if Ms. Butler had handled it differently, if she gave me a minute to compose myself, to go get a drink of water, I would have been able to get through that reading. I wouldn’t have carried around this anxiety of failure and embarrassment with me, an anxiety that at times held me back academically.

It reminds me how much power and influence a teacher can have on kids. Luckily, I had many more teachers who were patient, understanding and loved what they did. Teachers such as Mrs. Dawson, who also taught fifth grade. She instilled in me a love of literature as she read to us from what became my favorite childhood book, “Where the Red Fern Grows.” I would lay my head on my desk, close my eyes, and let Mrs. Dawson’s voice carry me to the forests of the Ozark Mountains.

But no one had a larger impact than Avis Meyer. He was a journalism professor who shaped my writing more than anyone, and has become a trusted mentor and friend.

For every paper we turned in — a feature, essay or profile — he would read his favorite pieces to the class. And when he was reading, he would often emphasize the lines that struck him and you could see the delight in his face. My desire for my piece to be read made me more thoughtful and precise with my words, and, ultimately, it gave me a love of language.

Every one probably has a story about a “Ms. Butler” type who ridiculed them when they could have used some kindness. But for every Ms. Butler, there is surely a Mrs. Dawson. And if you’re really lucky, you might get an Avis Meyer.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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