Tuesday, February 26, 2013

This too shall laugh

In Egypt, students have to stand in line before morning classes, kind of like the military. The surrounding grounds are divided into sections for each stage, and each section is divided into areas for each class. The students from each class stand in a line of ascending order of height. Being 5' 2", I was always among the first few students in line. These lineups last for about 30 minutes each morning. We salute the flag and sing our national anthem, and the school makes important announcements. The best part of this daily routine is the school broadcast. Every morning a group of kids present news items and stories pertaining to a certain subject. Sundays are for the Arabic broadcast, Mondays are for the English broadcast, and so on.

During high school, I became in charge of the English broadcast. Together with a group of colleagues, I'd prepare our weekly program. We'd always try to make each show entertaining as well as informational. On Mondays, I would stand in front of the entire student body with a microphone in hand, my voice being broadcasted out of two megaphones positioned on the highest point of our school house, and deliver our show. I became a minor celebrity of sorts. I'd always end the program with the same sign off, "With this we come to end of our English broadcast. Until we meet again, this is Amira Shawkey, wishing you a happy day." I loved it when students would come up to me during lunch break to share how much they enjoyed certain segments or suggest future topics. It meant that they were listening attentively to our show and interested in what we had to say. For the first time I understood how it felt to be proud of something I did. No matter the weather, sun or rain, I always showed up on our broadcast days.

In 1991, we had a political segment to talk about the now infamous referendums president Mubarak had every six years to see if the Egyptian people wanted him to continue for another term. Of course the results were always an astounding 99.9% for yes, despite the fact that almost no one went to the polls. The objective of the segment was to introduce the word "referendum" and its meaning. As I was presenting the various forms of the word, singular and plural, I said plulal instead. I immediately realized my mistake, smiled, took a deep breath and repeated the sentence, "And the plulal form of referendum is referenda." As if I suffered from a temporary bout of Tourettes, every time I opened my mouth, all that came out was "Plulal" "Plulal" "Plulal". Our principle, who taught High School English back in the day, came closer and whispered to me, "It is pronounced plural." By this time, the entire student body and most of the faculty were laughing. I surrendered to the fact that I will never be able to say the word plural out loud again. I shook my head and said that no one is perfect. That day, after the broadcast ended, the crowd applauded a little bit more enthusiastically than usual. Later people came up to say how brave I was to admit my mistake and move on. Others said I should have ignored it all together and proceed as if nothing went wrong. I really didn't think much about how silly I appeared at the time this was happening. My only concern was making sure that I didn't ruin the segment and the program didn't exceed its 15 minute allotment. Needless to say, I was very embarrassed after the fact. My confident and cocky ego was appalled that I couldn't properly pronounce a simple word like "plural" (I can't say "comfortably" either). The fact the people laughed about the whole incident made me realized that it wasn't the end of the world.

I like to share this story with my friends and colleague who have a difficult time presenting their work or engaging in public speaking. I always tell them to image the worst possible thing that could happen. They'll trip and fall down. They'll mix up words. They'll make a fool of themselves! So what? Who cares? Most likely, people will laugh and soon enough forget the whole thing. With any work we put forward, we always do our best. We try our hardest to ensure the work is perfect. We practice over and over. We ask for other people's opinion. But shit happens! We can't control the universe and we can't control people's reception of our work. As long as we know and believe that it's not the end of the world, everything will be okay. Even if people mercilessly tease us for a bad performance, always remember a 15 year old girl regurgitating the word "Plulal" "Plulal" "Plulal" in front of a thousand people and tell ourselves "This too shall laugh!"

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