Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Facing Your Fears

By Victor Llanque
Associate Head of School

I left Family Conferences feeling extremely proud of how much my advisees have grown over the years, and I felt inspired by their willingness to think deeply about their experiences here. I got the goosebumps whenever they spoke about friends or teachers who supported them along the way. I felt grateful to be a part of this community. 

Hearing those stories also brought back memories of my schooling and the teachers who made an impact on my life.  I was born in La Paz, Bolivia, a magnificent city of two million people that sits atop the frigid Andean mountains. When I was one year old and my sister was three, our parents got job offers to be university professors in a town called Riberalta, which was located in the deepest and most remote part of the Bolivian Amazon forest. Roughly the size of Westport, my hometown was surrounded by untouched rainforest. No roads led to Riberalta; people had to either fly or take a boat to get there. My parents went ahead without me to find a house; when my mother saw a pink cerdito — a piglet — in the streets, she broke out in tears because it reminded her of me.  

They fell in love with the place, the people, and the beauty of the landscape, and they decided to raise their family there. It was so much fun for me to grow up in Riberalta. I had a relatively normal childhood going to school, playing sports, and enjoying my pets like “Reina,” who was a street dog that we adopted, “Beatriz” the monkey dad rescued from the market, and “Señorita” — our blue-throated macaw who sometimes would get electric shocks from chewing at wires. The quality of schools was quite poor, but I got a great education at home, and in the forest, following my parents on their field trips with their university students.  

I also loved playing soccer when I was little, but it wasn’t until middle school that I realized that I wasn’t very good at it. Many years later, when I started playing with a group of mostly Brazilian guys here in Stamford, they stopped passing me the ball after ten minutes on the field. That’s exactly what happened to me in Middle School. 

When I got to high school, Kebra, my computer teacher — who was a 6 foot 5 former basketball player — invited me to join a group of boys who had just started to learn how to play volleyball. I showed up to practice with a few of my friends and, for the first time, I felt like I was on the same level as everyone else. We were all learning the sport from scratch. Our arms were sore at the same time, our serves didn’t cross the net, and couldn’t pass the ball to save our lives. We got better with each practice and we started training seriously every day, sometimes twice a day. As the setter, I was involved in all the plays and my coach made me the captain of the team. We ended up competing at the state level and many of us got recruited to play for our state’s team at the national championship. To give you some perspective, the entire population of Bolivia is smaller than the combined populations of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Competing at the national level would be like competing in New Englands, except Bolivians are generally very short people and the country doesn’t have enough resources to be competitive in any sport, let alone volleyball.

Still, I loved the game and devoted most of my free time to getting better at it. I convinced my parents to let me go to another city to train with the state team for a month. I slept on a bunk bed with other athletes and we trained every day to get ready for nationals.  At the national tournament, we were the underdogs who came out of nowhere and crushed every team all the way up to the final match. We faced the team from Cochabamba, which was favored to win the championship. We were neck-to-neck with them until the very end, and it was my turn to serve the ball.  I grabbed the ball walked over to the back of the court, and cleaned the sweat off my eyes. Heard the bell whistle, ran, jumped, and hit the ball.  The ball traveled beautifully but it just didn’t curve down enough. It fell out of bound. We lost the game. I was crushed. Knowing that no one had expected us to get that far in the tournament was only cold comfort to me at that moment. 

After the tournament, my friends made fun of me because when I cleaned the sweat off my face before serving the ball, it looked like I was making the sign of the cross. They were all Catholic and knew that I didn’t go to church. Because of me, it felt like God was on the other team’s side. I’m still agnostic today, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I made the sign of the cross at that moment. What would it have felt like to take the pressure off my shoulders and leave the outcome to a higher power?  

I wish I could say to you that losing that championship was the end of my volleyball career, but the truth is that there would have been no career ahead of me even if we had won. Bolivian universities don’t recruit athletes and the Bolivian national volleyball team could never defeat any other national teams in the region. Quite frankly, I had been spending way too much time on this sport and practically zero time doing anything else, including my homework. My parents were generally supportive of it, but they were both worried about my future.  

One day, my father showed up with a newspaper and placed it on the dining room table. “You should take a look at this,” he said without explaining what it was. I wasn’t interested in reading the news so a few weeks passed before he finally told me that there was an ad in the newspaper for a scholarship to attend an international boarding school. 

I asked my dad why he hadn’t told me before. The due date was a week away!  He said he wanted me to take the initiative, which made me want to kill him: I was supposed to write a personal statement, get two letters of recommendation, fill out the application form, and find someone who was traveling to La Paz to bring my paperwork on the next flight. I understood that he wanted me to make my own decisions and take control of my life, but he didn’t have to make it extra difficult. 

I put my head down, completed the application, and got it in on time. A few weeks later, I got a call from La Paz. The person on the other line asked me if I thought I could get used to the cold because I had earned a full scholarship to finish my last two years of high school in Norway. I said yes on the spot, hung up the phone, and jumped in excitement. I hugged my dad whose face was beaming with pride, and then I turned to my mother to give her a hug only to realize that tears were falling down her cheeks. She gave me a hug, held me tight, and didn’t say a word.  I knew she was happy for me, but I also knew that deep down, she was sad to see her boy — the little cerdito — take off. 

A few months later, I landed at the Oslo Airport in the fall of 2001. I picked up my suitcases, put them on a cart, and pushed it towards the exit signs.  Double sliding doors opened up with passengers ahead of me and I saw on the other side a group of teens with balloons and a sign with my name on it. The sliding doors shut in front of me, but they might as well have shut inside my chest. I went from feeling excited about meeting new people to feeling completely petrified. I had studied English for a few months, but I was far from fluent. I had practiced a few greetings, but I couldn’t recall any of them. I took a deep breath — like Harry Potter at the train station before pushing through the brick wall on his way to Hogwarts — and I walked past the sliding doors.  

The school was located on a beautiful fjord on the west coast of Norway. My peers and teachers came from all over the world and they are some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met, but it was tough for me in the beginning. A week after I arrived, I was sitting in my first geography class with Daniel, a charismatic, larger-than-life teacher from Ghana. He asked me to introduce myself in class and handed me blank transparency and a marker. He said something I didn’t understand, but my Spanish-speaking friend told me I was supposed to prepare a presentation about my country for the next class. When I got to my dorm room that evening, I fell asleep with my face on my Spanish-English dictionary, looking up one word at a time for my presentation.

I showed up to class the next day hoping other people would present in front of me and take up the whole period.  I was afraid of embarrassing myself in front of all these cool people who I wanted to call friends. 

Then Daniel did something I will never forget. He asked us to repeat with him.  

Che che Kule 

Che che Kofisa 

Kofisa Langa 

Kaka shilanga 

Kum Aden Nde 

Kum Aden Nde 

He had us all dancing to this song. 

I don’t remember how the presentation went; I don’t even remember giving the presentation, but I remember the song and I remember him and the safe environment that he created for us to learn. Before I knew it, I was speaking English with greater ease and fluency and he became a mentor to me. He advised me on my “extended essay”, which is like a global thesis. Beyond his helpful suggestions and edits, he taught me to value where I came from and to believe in myself as a learner. 

When I applied to Macalester College in the fall of 2002, almost exactly 20 years ago, someone had warned me about the MN weather. My thought was, “I already live in Norway, how much worse could it get?”  After living in Norway, camping in a snow cave, skiing, and climbing snow peaks, I can confidently say that I’ve never felt colder than waiting for the bus in Saint Paul, Minnesota.    

Despite the weather, Macalester was an incredible place for me to continue my education. I had many classmates who had either attended my high school in Norway or had gone to similar schools around the world. Talha and Varun were two of them. They were my roommates in my freshman year. They are two of the brightest people I know. In our first semester, they were taking 200-level classes, while I had signed up for a course on “college writing” where I would learn to put sentences together. 

 My roommates used to rave about one of their professors — Dr. Adriene Christiensen — who taught a course on rhetoric in the political science department. She was a tough grader, but she taught them how to write. In my second semester, with encouragement from my roommates, I signed up for her course. I don’t know why, perhaps it was the fact that I admired Talha and Varun and I thought I couldn’t be like them, or maybe I had spent enough time at Macalester to realize everyone was smarter than me, but being in Dr. Christiensen’s class felt like being back in my first day of geography class in Norway. I understood what people were saying and I would come to class prepared, yet, somehow, whenever I spoke in class, a few seconds after I would launch into a sense, my jaw would start shaking. I was so conscious of my jaw that I would lose track of what I was trying to say. 

Then one day, I stopped by the professor’s office to ask a question about an upcoming paper. Before she answered it, she said that she had noticed a discrepancy between the quality of my writing and the confidence I displayed in class discussions. She took out a pink piece of paper and proceeded to write the word “FEAR” on it.

“Do you know what this stands for?”, she asked me while looking me straight in the eye. “False Emotion Appearing as Real.” 

Then she pulled out a CD which she listened to help her relax. “Do you know why I — a department chair, published author, respected scholar — have to listen to this to get through my day?”  I don’t know, I said, nervous to say the wrong thing. 

“I feel it, too,” she said. “We all do at some point. But it’s not real.” 

I went on to do well in the class and she had me present the research paper I wrote for her at an academic conference among graduate students. She sent me this picture a few years later. I don’t know what I’m doing with my mouth, but I promise you my jaw wasn’t shaking.  

A few years later, I found myself playing the role of Dr. Christiensen. Lucy Hoffman was the first student that I ever advised in the global thesis program at the first symposium the school hosted back in 2010. Mr. Abel reminded me that before her presentation, she said she felt like she was going to throw up. I admire her and all the students who present at the symposium so much. I really do. Most of you will have no problem standing in front of the audience to give your presentations. You have an environment here in which you get to make announcements, speak at the Harkness table, and speak in public at various points of your academic experience here.  You will have no problem doing this.  But a few of you may feel like Lucy did. I coached her up to the very last minute and knew how nervous she was before the did a beautiful job at the symposium. It was incredibly gratifying for me to help Lucy overcome her fears. I can’t recall telling her about Dr. Christiansen, but I do remember sharing that story in this venue a few years later. 

Looking back, I can’t say that I never felt afraid of public speaking again and that I managed to suppress that emotion. The feeling is still there. The more I try to suppress it, the less I succeed at doing so. Dr. Christiensen was wrong: the emotion is very real and I feel it in my body. I feel my heart racing, my mouth dries up, my jaw shakes, my hands sweat.  It’s a product of evolution, a survival mechanism that prepares our bodies for danger. When it comes to fear of public speaking, the emotion is real but the danger is not. Do you know what happens if you mess up in a speech?  Nothing. That’s what happens.  So, whenever I’m in this situation, I simply stand and wait for the emotion to pass.  

I feel grateful to my parents, friends, teachers, and students, who give me the strength to stare at this ugly monster — the thing I’m afraid of — in the face and be able to say, you’re not that scary, you’re not even real. In fact, you look a lot like cerdito who is dying to dance che che kule.