A Smiling Face
After I graduated from Cornell in 2006, I had low self-esteem, and suffered from social anxiety. And as a result, I was super uncomfortable speaking in front of groups of people (even friends).
Sometimes, cold beads of sweat would flow down my face as I engaged in the simplest of conversations with friends! It was disheartening and I often found myself asking “why me?”
One day in the fall of 2006, I was reading a book at Barnes & Nobles (back when it was still a thing) called Never Eat Alone, and this book referred to Toastmasters as a great way to improve your public speaking and communication abilities - within a relaxing and supportive environment.
At that point, I thought to myself, what did I have to lose? So, I looked up the closest club near me, which was True Potential - located actually just 1 subway stop away. And I proceeded to attend as a guest.
The process as a guest was a bit frightening. You were entering into a new atmosphere, not knowing what to expect. With new people. And new faces.
So, when I first attended a club meeting at the Toastmasters club, I had very low expectations. Would these people be friendly? Would they bite my arm off if I made a mistake? Who knew?
I went through the metal detectors at the lobby of the building, cautiously proceeded up to the second floor, and walked into Room 213, where the meeting was held. Right then and there, I was flustered.
There were already several people in the room, almost 10 people, socializing, talking to each other, getting to know one another. And I thought to myself “oh boy” it’s time for you to socialize. Something that I totally dreaded at that time.
Just then, an elderly gentleman saw me, smiled, and walked towards me. Oh no, Calvin, now it’s time to be social. Don’t fret. Be cool. No worries. Just smile.
So, I smiled. And he smiled back. And he introduced himself to me. His name was David, one of the more experienced members of the Toastmasters club. He asked me for my name, how I found the club, and just welcomed me with open arms to enjoy the Toastmasters meeting.
His warmth and compassion resonated, and from that point on, I made it a case to simply relax and enjoy the Toastmasters meeting as a guest. I believe during that meeting, I was called on for table topics impromptu speaking.
Now, you can imagine the complete nervousness I felt coming up to that stage for the very first time. Again, I thought to myself. Don’t fret Calvin. Be cool. No worries. Just smile. I forgot the question that the questioner posed me, but I completely struggled answering the question.
That familiar feeling of anxiety poured over me. As I stumbled, stuttered, and blanked out. This was not going the way I planned. And I really wanted to get off that stage.
I was about to panic, looking around for a way out. And my eyes suddenly caught the eyes of David. The elderly gentleman. Looking back at me with warmth. Smiling. Nodding. Giving me a sense of relaxation that everything was going to be okay.
And with that smile, and with that nod, he encouraged me to go on.
David was a committed member of that Toastmasters club. He would attend regularly. I joined the club in 2006, and achieved my CC award in 2009. David was always there cheering me on. But, I realized that his approach was not special. He approached every new member and guest with the same warmth and the same loving smile.
I took a hiatus, going to business school overseas, and rejoined the same club again in 2013 when I returned to NYC.
David was still at that club, a little older and a little slower. But still, that personality of compassion shown through. Smiling and nodding for not just myself, but for everyone that went up there to speak. And he welcomed me back to the club with open arms, just like the good old days.
A few more years passed and David began coming to meetings even slower - this time relying on a walker. But still, his personality and his compassion shown through just like the first day I arrived back in 2006.
One more year passed and David (who was already in his 90’s) was unable to attend meetings anymore, needing to stay home and be cared for by his family. And just a few years ago, our club learned that David had passed away.
As a club, our members bought a card, wrote down our individual condolences, and sent it to his family.
And I learned a lot more about David. He was a founding member of that club, which started back in 1984. I learned that outside of Toastmasters, he was a retired police officer who tirelessly served the community. And he did live a productive and fruitful life, leaving behind his wife and children.
To be frank, I wasn’t that close with David as a friend. And he wasn’t even my official mentor.
But I will remember his smiling face the first time I came to Toastmasters as a timid guest, not knowing what to expect back in 2006.
I remember his smiling face sitting right there in the seats, looking at me with reassurance, smiling, nodding his head, making me feel that everything will be okay - whenever I got the chance to come up there and speak.
And I will remember the smiling face he provided to (not just me, but) every single member that went up there to speak.
But sometimes, that’s all we really need. Sometimes, I even wonder if I would’ve remained a member of Toastmasters if it were not for that smiling face. Sometimes, a smiling face is enough to encourage us all to go on, and to realize that everything will be okay.