Part III: Adam's Saga
A Good Panic AttackIn the previous episode, Adam was intrigued by a speaker at the Future Optometrists Club: a professor at the university, Harry Van Doren, who was an expert on penetrating eye injuries...and a person with Asperger's Syndrome, high-functioning autism.
Intrigued because of his own social awkwardness, Adam went to Van Doren's next office hour.
Adam began by saying that he was fascinated with Van Doren's research. That was all Harry needed to go off and running for 15 minutes without a breath, in that mumbly voice and without making eye contact.
Adam didn't understand half of what Van Doren was saying but didn't want to sound stupid or make him feel like a poor communicator, so when Harry came up for air, Adam didn't ask for an re-explanation. He simply said, "Fascinating," whereupon Van Doren finally looked at Adam: "How'd you like to help me?"
Adam said, "How in the world could someone like me be of help to you, Dr. Van Doren?"
"Call me Harry. You can teach me how to be a better presenter. Just the way you've communicated with me here and at the Future Optometrists Club meeting showed me you're a better communicator than I am. I'm so bad that I usually get a panic attack before speaking. And it's getting worse, not better."
"Why don't you get a professional speaking coach or some professor?"
"I'm a little embarrassed to. And actually, I'd feel more comfortable with a student, with you. Adam, I have the biggest speech of my life coming up in three months at the World Council of Optometry Convention. I need your help."
And for three months, Adam sat with Harry an hour a week, mainly praising, occasionally reminding him to speak up or not mumble. As Adam gained confidence, he dared go a little further: "Do you think you need to add an example here?" or "Do you think there's too much on that slide? Maybe people need it simpler. Or at least I need it simpler."
Instead of getting defensive, Harry said, "Good! I need feedback like that. I'm so close to the research, the most complicated thing seems obvious to me."
At the conference, being with the socially terrible Harry somehow made Adam feel more confident about doing the schmoozey things he knew he should do. For example, he trolled the exhibit area and came a bit early to sessions to initiate conversation with friendly and influential-looking people. His standard opener: "Hi, my name is Adam Sapian. I'm in my final year of optometry school. This is my first conference. How about you?"
Right before Harry was scheduled to speak, he took Adam to an empty meeting room, closed the door, and rehearsed the speech one more time. Harry was more nervous. You could feel it. So Adam gave no suggestions; he knew his job now was just to calm Harry down: "You know more about this than anyone in the world. You'll do great. You're the king!" Harry laughed but his face was pale. Harry looked at his watch and said, "Showtime."
And off they went to the grand ballroom. Harry quivered, "Adam, you sit here, right where you told me I tend to look: a few rows back and just to the right of center. Seeing you a lot will calm me down."
At that moment, the introducer said to the packed ballroom, "Ah, here is the man of the hour. Get up here, Harry!"
Harry shakily climbed the three stairs to the dais. And then, to the audience's surprise, he turned around, raced back to Adam and whispered "I can't do it. I'm having a panic attack. A bad one. Really!"
"Harry, three deep breaths. You can do it."
"I can't. Adam, you do it. You've heard me do it a 1,000 times. Please. You have to!"
And without waiting for an answer, Harry stood up and, now relieved that he wouldn't have to give the talk, said in the most authoritative voice he could muster,
"It's important that we in the older generation give our young students a chance to shine so I've asked my star student, Adam Sapian to give the talk. He's fully prepared. Please, as you young people say, "Give it up for Adam Sapian!"
And the audience indeed did "give it up for Adam Sapian." Harry's mini-speech had touched everyone.
Adam had no choice. "Okay, Harry, give me your note cards." Adam rose from his seat and, in his ADHD way, ran up the stairs to the dais, and on the last step, tripped and fell onto the dais, whereupon his contact lens popped out."
"God, my lens popped out!" And instantly, five eminent optometrists and one clumsy optometry student were all on their knees looking for a contact lens. Adam thought, "Ben was right. I would lose my contact lenses."
Fortunately, someone found the lens and, from there, it was smooth sailing. Adam did a creditable job and whatever insufficiencies were more than compensated for by the moment's poignancy.
Adam ended the talk with, "Of course, I couldn't answer your questions anywhere near as well as Dr. Van Doren can. Dr. Van Doren, do you want to take questions?" And Harry did, more poised than he had ever been in his life.
Afterwards, Adam had a longer line of people waiting to talk with him than did Harry. One was the vice-president of the American Optometric Association who asked if he'd be the student member of the speaker selection committee. Two others made him an even better offer: a job!
But which to pick?
The next episode is HERE.