I am not a particularly outgoing person, and three years ago you would have had to drag me into a room full of people. Social ease does not come naturally to me. Yet I have learned to present a confident persona largely as a result of my role as a volunteer Speaker.
When I trained with my Guide dog Trudy in 2008 I received the “Qualifying Pack” which all rookie Guide dog owners are given at the end of training. One of the leaflets in this pack gave details about becoming a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs. Something stirred inside me and I wondered if I would be any good at it. After all, I had started out at University wanting to be a Teacher. I love the art of language, and to me a string of well-chosen words beats any fireworks display. This drive to express myself and communicate passionately with others left me in no doubt that I would end up being a Classics Teacher.
But it was not to be. Twenty years after my arrival at Oxford I found myself dwindling in a nursing home, afraid to be seen in public, unsure of who I was. Losing my useful vision at the end of my first year as an undergraduate was the end of my world. The disappointment of having to abandon my degree left me in tatters, and I lost all hope of having a life. The grief I felt took over my mind and dismantled my thoughts. I was unable to function, and thus began my default career as a psychiatric patient. I seriously thought that I would never emerge whole again.
But after many struggles which spanned twenty years I did emerge. Somehow I reached the peak of the mountain, and my reward was Trudy. Training with a Guide dog had been my dream since leaving Oxford. I knew that a dog would free me from the confines of sight loss, so I had to get myself back on track. At the time I did not anticipate that it would take so many years. But Trudy was worth the wait. When I trained with her I had been a resident in the nursing home for seven years, and never envisaged leaving. Trudy literally led me out of the front door and showed me the world outside.
So the leaflet in the Qualifying Pack renewed my sense of purpose and gave me direction. I moved into my own flat and began to seize every opportunity to rekindle the life which had so nearly died inside me. Could I really be a Speaker? Why not! I was extremely apprehensive, for my mental breakdown had stolen my confidence and given me a morbid fear of strangers. Yet I knew that if I didn’t seize this chance I would probably never feel fulfilled. I reasoned that even if it was disastrous, at least I would have given it my best shot.
I expected to have some training in Public Speaking before I was let loose on the public. However this was not the case. After registering as a volunteer for Guide dogs, six months later I received a phone call requesting me to give a talk at a nearby village Primary School. I cannot properly describe the terror which took hold of me as the appointed day grew closer. What was I thinking of?! Me! The semi-reclusive blind woman with a cleft palate speech impediment, giving a talk to a schoolful of kids! I always struggled being part of an audience, so how was I going to address one?
The dire scenarios tormented me for nights on end, but I forced myself to go through with it. When the day came I was relieved to find that most eyes were fixed on Trudy throughout my talk. I was speaking during Assembly to 90 children, but thanks to Trudy the dreaded “spotlight effect” did not take hold of me for long. When I finished my talk the children plied me with excited questions, and I felt so elated that I almost soared into the air. I was alive and free! This first talk was sixteen months ago, and now I am averaging about three talks a month. So in a very round-about way I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a Teacher. The topic of Guide dogs is easily as thrilling as Classics.
As I have grown more confident, my voice has ceased to vibrate uncontrollably as I’m speaking. I forget that I have a cleft palate which affects my pronunciation of certain consonants. Somehow I have learned to project out of myself, and the audiences I speak to rarely get to see the quaking nervous wreck inside the Speaker. I would not say that every talk I give is a success. Recently I came home convinced that my public speaking phase was over, and that I would never have the guts to speak in public again. But I guess the Phoenix within me won’t let my courage die forever. This week I gave another talk in Hereford, and thankfully I hit the right note with the audience. The buzz from a well-received talk fires up your soul and you leap into the clouds feeling literally on top of the world.
One of my favourite books is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. Zorba’s dance epitomises the phrase “Carpe Diem” – seize the day. His love for the moment and the simple pleasures of life, together with his incredible passion for music, has always struck a deep chord within me. Zorba knows what it means to be free, and is desperate to teach others the essence of freedom. One day I shall visit Crete and when I get there I will dance like Zorba. Sometimes it pays to leap out of your every day life and risk the unknown. Uncertainty gives rise to adventure, self-discovery and possible fulfilment. If it all goes wrong and you find yourself heading over a cliff-edge, then you can always turn round and go back the way you came.