Relenquishing My Inner Chicken-Shit

Shai Smith, Vagabond Shai

Several years ago, I walked into my general-education Human Communications class prepared to give my first 3-5 minute presentation. The subject: myself. As I sat in the crowded room awaiting my turn, I tried to push back the foreboding nightmares that were my high school presentations and remember that, you know, I’m an interesting person. Piece of cake! Unlike most college students, I had a kid – a kid who thought she was a superhero. I had teal streaks in my hair, tattoos, and a full-time position in the student-hated Financial Aid department. By day, I crunched numbers and helped students wade the ever-increasing maze of financial aid regulations. By night, I was an art student, charcoal smudging my dreams and full-figured naked people onto cream colored newsprint. By even later at night, I was a full-time mommy who made ‘the best egg sandwiches ever’ and could recite all of Sandra Boynton’s books by heart. I love people, and people love me. My life is the perfect blend of crazy-but-interesting, and I can strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger.

So, I told myself, ‘It’s just a three-minute presentation, about the one thing I know best. I’ve got this.’

Only, I didn’t. I stood in front of the room, opened my mouth, and heard nothing but the air conditioning vents rattle in the drop-ceiling tiles above me. I looked out at the 199 faces staring back at me and felt my chest tighten like the much-loved corsets of my high school years. The room started a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-style spin just as my eyes welled up with tears, so I did the only rational thing I could do: I immediately about-faced and walked out of the room.

Public speaking = not my forte. 

Not long after this, I was bribed and manipulated (in only the way best friends can bribe and manipulate) into taking a Philosophies of Peace course. I realized quickly being covered in charcoal and dried acrylic paints was only a small flicker of the flame in my spirit. I fell, boundlessly, in love with human rights, peace movement studies, and the environment. I changed majors, and filled my time volunteering, organizing, and reading. Issues such as nuclear warheads, the modern slave trade, and psychological wounds suffered by veterans take up the mental space previously occupied by graphite lines and color theory.

I also find myself in my adviser’s office, throwing my hands in the air, exasperated as to ‘what exactly in the hell am I going to do with this degree when I’m done with school?!’. He says I sound like a concerned parent. He’s also right, because I was just asked that very question the night before. He rolls his eyes, throws his hands behind his head in amusement, and says ‘Shai, you can do whatever the hell you want to do. What do you want to do?’. Um…I want to make a difference.

He smiles, and says ‘Then you should probably learn to speak in public.’


I hate it when reality smacks me in the face, especially when it does so smugly.

But, he’s right. I want to stand in front of a crowd and explain to them the world-changing aspects of compassion and waging peace. I want to help lead organizations in fighting poverty, war, or slavery, and lend my voice to those in countries and situations where they cannot be heard. Every ounce of my soul all the way down to my toes wants to pour my life into helping the world be a better place. 

So, I apply to a 20-seat-only, week-long Peace Leadership Training with my hero and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation…and get in. We’re going to spend part of that training focusing on ‘Public Speaking for Peace Leadership’, and realizing this sends me in such a tizzy that my entire Spring semester was dedicated to relinquishing my inner chicken-shit and doing this for real. My adviser and I spend the semester working on public speaking and filling my head with peace-related knowledge, despite my whining, protesting, and foot-stomping through his office. His calm but blatant ‘Do you want to do this, or not?’ responses to my fear-induced adolescent-esque fits gives me the courage I need to keep going. I give presentations on subjects varying from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the concept of sustainability. I take on leadership roles in multiple organizations and volunteer for almost as many. I work hard at my eco-friendly lifestyle blog, which reaches the #5 Eco-friendly Mom Blog spot for 2013. I give lectures on Social Media Marketing for professors I’ve ever even heard of and design social media/blogging presentations for universities I’ve never attended. I carve my name, slowly but surely. I accept challenge after challenge, and face my fear head-on. 

So, I’m going. I’m going to get on an airplane and fly all the way across the country. Room and board are paid for after fundraising my little heart out with watercolor paintings and Shai-designed postcards. I’m currently working on the $600 needed to fly me there and back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s done. I will face my fear, and I will come home to a full-schedule of speaking engagements throughout the Fall that I’ve already set up – you know…just to make sure I don’t back out. I will help train others, like me, to become peace leaders and help change the world one person at a time.

And, I will tell them about the crazy, teal-haired college student with a superhero preschooler, who couldn’t muster the confidence to give a three-minute presentation.


This post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.

“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press

“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.”

“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail

Find out more…

  • Kristina E. Cimino

    Love this! So proud of you and am sure you’ll do great on your quest to promote peace!
    After seeing you grab the attention of my communication class I am quite positive of it!

  • T Atwood

    I enjoyed the read; and your ‘ inner C-* ‘ hasn’t got a chance!

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  • Lisa

    That’s a very worthy undertaking! You’re going to be so proud of yourself. All the best!!

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  • TaRhonda

    I hope you’re able to express yourself in front of crowds as well as you do here. Humanity has a ways to go, and we need calm voices like yours to get there. And never underestimate the power of feeling like a superhero. Your daughter probably gets that confidence from a great home, so maybe you’ll spread that to the rest of us too.