When I was 7 years old, an earthquake hit my village of Gujarat, Pakistan. I was sitting in my classroom, looking out the window feeling hot, tired, and bored. Then I felt the ground shake. Seconds later, the whole school shook. The teachers immediately began rushing the students out. The screaming and the grownups’ panic got to me and I thought it was the last day of my life.
“Get out! Out of the door, now!” my teacher yelled. All I wanted to do was go to my mom because I was so scared. I was shaking and wanted to cry, but I didn’t—even though everyone was frantic and frightened around me. My grandfather, who was the school principal, looked so confident and brave that it made me want to be like him. And by hoping to be like him, I was able to feel brave.
Once we were all outside, we heard a loud boom. Different parts of the school ceiling had collapsed. The students looked frozen as they watched. I thought, “That ceiling could have fallen on us.” We talked among ourselves, mostly saying, “Thank god we left the building in time.”
The earthquake destroyed the parts of the village closest to the main roads, and some houses collapsed and fell on each other. Our house was in the middle of the village where there was no damage. A few people who were near the collapsed buildings had minor injuries but, fortunately, no one died.
I Can Be Strong
I was surprised that I didn’t cry during the earthquake. It made me think maybe I was stronger than people thought I was.
I hadn’t envisioned myself as a brave person before. I am the youngest in my family and everyone doted on me and treated me like a baby. I was encouraged to be hardworking and responsible, but not strong or courageous.
I had fears, too. I think my biggest fear was giving a presentation in front of a large audience. But after the earthquake, I decided maybe I had the courage to overcome this fear. I didn’t want to be a fearful person.
Sandy Comes for a Visit
Little did I know that after this earthquake, another natural disaster was waiting for me. This time my family and I were in Brooklyn because we had moved here in 2007. A few days before Hurricane Sandy, every news channel was warning people to get supplies like food and water in case of power loss.
That night was full of wind, lightning, and rain. The streets were deserted. My family and I were sitting in the living room watching the news and looking out the window when we saw water pouring through the streets. We guessed that the Rockaway Inlet, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean and is only five blocks from our building, had overflowed.
During this second disaster, I felt the same courage and resolve that I had during the earthquake. I wasn’t too scared and I didn’t feel like crying. Instead, I discovered a part of myself that I didn’t know existed.
Fortunately, everyone else in my family was also succeeding at staying calm. My brother kept going in and out of the rooms. My older sister was trying to be brave, but by the way she was sitting on the sofa grabbing its sides, I could tell she was scared. My mother is claustrophobic, so when the water was surrounding the building I could see her sweating and looking out the window again and again. My father sat down quietly next to her and whispered, “Look, our children are so strong.” That made me feel powerful.
I looked out the window, watching the water that had already entered our building and had covered the first floor. We were on the second floor. “It’s just water” is what I kept thinking. “All of this has to end eventually, so why worry about it?”
I sat next to my mom and said, “Panicking isn’t of any use to us. This is out of our control. It’ll go away soon.” My mom looked at me, surprised. “Don’t let this courage of yours go to waste. Always try to hold on to it,” she said.
My mom usually talked to me like I was a child but now she was treating me like I was a grown up. I felt proud. While I checked to make sure the flashlights were working, my brother said, “Looks like someone’s having fun. You seem like you want to go outside.” I knew this was how it felt to face your fears.
Finding My Courage
The thunder rumbled on and on. We had no electricity; the fresh smell of scented candles had filled our apartment combined with the smell of grass and rain. I could hear people in the hallway crying. My mom, dad, and sister were huddled together on the large sofa while my brother was leaning on it. I continued sitting by myself on the other sofa looking out the window. I prayed for the weather to improve.
The storm gradually faded away overnight, but I don’t think anyone in our house slept much that night.
School was out for a week and everything outside was a mess. Many trees had fallen, windows were broken, people’s belongings had floated away in the water, and cars had stopped working. My father is a taxi driver and he had tried to park his car in a safe place, but the hurricane had damaged it too. It was in the repair shop for a few weeks and we had to figure out how to get by the rest of the month without much money.
After the storm, I felt different; I felt like the bravest person. I realized I felt the same strength and calm during the hurricane that I had during the earthquake in Gujarat. It made me wonder how I could be so scared of public speaking.
All Eyes Were on Me
I thought: If I didn’t lose my courage to a hurricane and an earthquake (which isn’t even in human control), then I shouldn’t lose my courage to something within my control—like talking in front of a group. I just needed to believe in myself and my ability to come up with ways not to let the fear control me.
In the past, when I’ve had to speak in front of the class, my legs start shaking the moment my name is called to present. What goes through my mind is: “Why is everyone looking at me? Look at that girl looking so deeply at me. She’s probably judging me. What would happen if I decide to just walk out of class and never come back?”
But this winter when I had to give a presentation in my chemistry class, I came up with three new strategies to overcome my fear: I would take deep breaths and imagine that only my friends were watching me, not the whole class including the teacher. I’d remind myself that I’ve handled more stressful situations than this. And I’d remember that the more I spoke, the closer I’d get to the end of the presentation. Like being in Hurricane Sandy, I knew the more I thought about the presentation’s end the easier it would be for me to handle.
So I felt ready. The teacher asked who wanted to volunteer and I mustered the courage to raise my hand. I felt more relaxed than I thought I would even though all eyes were on me. When I started reading from the small book that I had created, I gained more confidence. The more I talked, the more relaxed I became because I knew I kept getting closer to being finished. In two minutes I was done with my presentation and everybody was clapping. Inside my brain, I clapped for myself, because I had finally done it.