I was in the ninth grade. A year in which it seemed I was halfway to nowhere. Confidence was not part of my nature. My actions were largely controlled by my feelings of inferiority. Perhaps it was the low light of self-doubt that made the following experience such a bright and guiding star.
Third hour I sat near the back of the classroom. My feet extended as far forward as I could stretch them. By sitting in this manner I was scarcely visible from where the teacher sat at her desk in the front.
Friday was the day for current events. When the roll was called, each student had two choices—he could either answer “Prepared” or “Unprepared.” If his response was “Prepared,” he had to give a talk. If his response was “Unprepared,” he didn’t have to do anything. I quickly grasped the idea that the word unprepared was the word that would get me off the hook.
As the weeks went by, each time my name was called I responded almost with dignity, “Unprepared.” My friends also mastered this word. We all, as a group, made it easier for each of us as individuals.
Once as I was visiting with the teacher, I noticed my name in the performance roll book, and behind my name was a long series of negative signs. This worried me but not enough to make me stand up in front of my friends and give a talk. Speaking to a group seemed like the most frightening of all things.
A girl that I liked very much sat in front of me. I liked her so much that on the way to school I would think of clever things to say to her, but when in her presence, my mind would go blank and I would become almost tongue-tied.
One day when the teacher called the roll and got to my name, I replied, “Unprepared.” It was then that this girl did me a great favor. She turned around, looked back at me, and said, “Why don’t you get prepared?” I was not able to listen to any of the reports that day. I kept thinking of all sorts of wonderful things like, “What does she care, unless she cares?”
I went home, found an article in the newspaper, and read it time and again until I had finally committed it to memory. I cut the article out, folded it, placed it in my wallet, and carried it with me all week.
The next Friday I was there in my usual seat in the back. The teacher started to call the roll without looking up. Finally she got to my name; she said, “George.” And very quietly I gave a great speech—I said, “Prepared.” She stopped calling the roll and looked up at me. I poked my head up as far as I could and nodded. The girl turned around and smiled. My friends looked over at me like, “Traitor.” Then I sat waiting my turn, saying to myself, “What have I done?” I was scared. Then I made a magnificent discovery. It was all right to be afraid if I didn’t let it stop me from doing what I should.
My turn came. I went to the front and started to speak. I remembered every word, and after the last word had crossed my lips, I stood there for just a second, and a priceless thought passed my mind and found its way to my heart. I said to myself, “I like you.”
I returned to my seat and sat down. I didn’t hear any of the reports, but as my heart pounded within me, I kept feeling over and over again, “This is the only way to live.”
I have since learned that the word unprepared really does take you off the hook and lead you away from pressure. By learning to say that word you really don’t have to do anything, but you never know the joy of doing something that causes you to say to yourself, “I like myself.”