Performance Anxiety 

A little public humiliation never hurt anybody

A little public humiliation never hurt anybody

By John Bridges

My mother believed that children should only be frightened of two things: eternal damnation and forgetting the words to “Little Orphan Annie” in public. Eternal damnation, she figured, could be taken care of by the all-sufficient, all-covering, sin-erasing Grace of God. Forgetting “Little Orphan Annie” was another matter entirely.

The grace of God, she was convinced, could handle most anything a preadolescent boy could do behind the closed doors of his Alabama bedroom. She also figured that it could, if necessary, take care of adultery, fornication, fraud, embezzlement, and most other all-too-human errors. She understood the nature of private sin, a wandering eye, a tendency toward slothfulness and less-than-immaculate personal hygiene, an occasional twinge of lust in the heart. She did not, however, believe in people embarrassing themselves in public.

To embarrass yourself, she would explain, was to embarrass your parents. To embarrass your parents was to embarrass your family. To embarrass your family was to embarrass untold generations gone before. To embarrass yourself—if the embarrassment was extended back far enough by a sort of reverse geometric progression—was to embarrass all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, most of the known Christian martyrs, Christopher Columbus, and the Emperor Charlemagne as well.

My mother knew that there was only one sure way to steer a child away from a life of such compounded, irrevocable godawfulness. She believed that children should memorize James Whitcomb Riley and John Greenleaf Whittier and Vachel Lindsay and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Leigh Hunt. She believed that children should memorize truly dreadful poetry and recite it in public. She believed that, once a child had made it through “Abou Ben Adhem” in front of a ticket-buying audience, that child was marked and sealed for a life of leadership, poise, and sobriety. She felt that adult persons, especially adult persons related by blood to the “Abou Ben Adhem”-reciting children, should be glad to witness the first evidence of a life clearly meant for the upswing. She did not understand how any parent could hold out even the slenderest hope for a child who did not recite poems.

My mother truly believed that the only embarrassments that mattered were embarrassments that happened in public. She truly believed that stage fright was the worst sort of fright that could possibly be. My mother had once thought that she would become an actress. She was convinced, she said, that the eyes were the window to the soul.

For a 7-year-old boy with the proper command of gesture, inflection, and elocution, she was certain, life could hold no reasonable fear.

My mother, of course, had never been a 7-year-old boy with a mother like my mother. She could bank on the accomplishment of remembering all the words to “Little Boy Blue” and the value it would have in polite society. She had no idea how little good it would do an overweight 12-year-old taking his pants off for the first time in a Alabama phys-ed locker room. She did not know that other boys have a way of remembering when another boy has recited Vachel Lindsay in public. She did not know how it could curse a boy’s life to know all the words to “The Potato Dance.”

My brother and I did our memorizing in the summer, between Alabama cloudbursts and week-long tent revivals. My brother was allowed to memorize Robert W. Service poems about gunfights and barrooms and the loss of limbs and digits to frostbite. I, meanwhile, got Riley and Lindsay and “Abou Ben Adhem,” poems about virtue and little dead children and fidelity to mother and hearts devoted to long-vanished sweethearts.

We practiced our poems on fried-chicken-heavy preachers and on unsuspecting cousins, just stopping by unannounced to eat lemon meringue pie and tank up on saccharine-sweetened iced tea. We spaced out the program with musical numbers. My brother played Bellini on the baritone saxophone. I played the piano, accompanying myself on “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.”

At the end of our selections, my mother would announce, “It will be perfectly all right now, if any of you want to applaud.”

Summer, however, was only a dress rehearsal. Visiting preachers were stitting ducks. Cousins who stumbled in without warning clearly deserved whatever they got. The real test came with autumn, with the onset of PTA meetings and State Fair talent shows. The real test came with “Little Orphan Annie.” The real test came with Halloween.

My brother had made it through “Little Orphan Annie” two years before me. He had been permitted to wear a cowboy hat and a set of six guns with imitation tooled-leather holsters. I, on the other hand, was expected to recite James Whitcomb Riley while dressed as a penguin. My mother had sewn a wire coat hanger into the bill.

Riding to the Halloween carnival in the backseat of my mother’s car, I said, “Mama, I think I’m gonna vomit.”

My mother said, “Just press the tips of your fingers together. I learned it in New York at the Plonk School of Expression. It’s what all the professional actresses do.”

I pressed my black-felt penguin fins together and looked down at my orange-felt penguin feet. I said, “I can’t remember how the poem starts.”

My mother said, “ ‘Little Orphan Annie’s come to our house to stay....’ ”

I said, “What if I have to go to the bathroom?”

My mother said, “You will not have to go to the bathroom. You simply walk out on the stage, just as if it was our living room. You step up and say, ‘ “Little Orphan Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley.’ Remember to make your ooo sounds when you get to the scary parts. Remember to look up when you talk about the wind.”

My brother was riding in the front seat, next to my mother. He said, “You know, when they turn out the lights in the auditorium, you can’t see anybody’s faces.” My brother was wearing a red devil’s suit.

My mother said, “Focus. Just remember to focus. Focus on a spot at the back of the room.”

I said, “What if they’ve got all the lights out?”

My brother said, “ ‘Little Orphan Annie’s come to our house to stay....’ What comes next, huh? Bet ya can’t tell me the part that comes next.”

On the Halloween carnival talent-show program, I came after twin sisters who sang the Alabama state song and a fifth-grader who did magic tricks involving wooden clothes pins, a used hairnet, and a Mason jar filled with dried butterbeans.

I waddled out to the edge of the stage and looked out into the darkness. In the auditorium there was nothing but a rustling sort of silence, the rattling of drugstore-taffeta costumes and an occasional shuffling of feet. I looked out into the blackness, but I could not see the back of the auditorium. Instead, all I could see were hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses catching the stagelight and tossing it back at me. All I could hear was other people breathing. All I could feel was the waiting. Across the floor of the auditorium, I heard a screeching sound of metal squealing, anguished, against metal. Somebody was shifting the rickety legs of a tin folding chair.

I took a step forward and said, “ ‘Little Orphan Annie’ by James Whitcomb Riley.”

There was no sound. There was just the sight of the eyeglasses all leaning forward, like the eyes of cats, glassy, blocking out every sight of the soul.

I gripped my fists inside my penguin fins and began, “Little Orphan Annie’s come to our house to stay,/to wash the cups and saucers and brush the crumbs away,/to shoo the chickens off the porch, and...” Suddenly, I realized that I had to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, I realized that I did know the next line. I was standing onstage in a penguin suit, and I could not think of one other damned thing to say about Little Orphan Annie.

“To shoo the chickens off the porch,” I said. In the darkness, somebody was making a clucking sound. “And...,” I said, “and..., and...” Out of the darkness, I swear, somewhere in the auditorium, I heard my mother muttering, “Warren Jackson Bridges, I am going to whip the living daylights out of you when I get you home.” There was the clatter of a folding chair.

Mrs. Frondel, the music teacher, took me by the shoulder and led me from the stage. I am not sure whether or not my brother got a whipping that evening. When we got home, I closed my bedroom door and said “Little Orphan Annie” aloud.

Just the other night, I had to make a speech at a party. It was not actually a speech; it was more like introductions. It was a party where there were cocktails, so most of the people in the room were smiling. They laughed when they were supposed to. When I stopped talking, they went back to the bar for more drinks.

Pouring herself a vodka and grapefruit, a woman in a black sweater told me, “I think you have a real talent for speaking in front of people.”

I said, “Thank you. It’s something I learned from my mother.”

The woman in the black sweater said, “She must have taught you to have a wonderful self-image.”

I poured myself a vodka and soda. “What she taught me,” I said, “was to fear for the loss of my soul.”

I poured myself a vodka and soda. “What she taught me,” I said, “was to fear for the loss of my soul.”


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