I was swathed in jet black cloth, standing rigidly in front of a silent crowd in the main hall of the Sacramento Masonic Temple. Imposing, archaic seating boxes loomed over my head, and the musky windows filtered the mid-afternoon sunlight a dazed yellow. Anxiety was biting through my insides, but I couldn’t let my fears escape — not when they were watching. I closed my eyes.

Freeze frame. Record scratch.

You’re probably wondering how I got into this situation. And to really explain myself, I’d have to blame my mom.

Art by Ashley Zhao

It began five years ago, in a location with the cult-like qualities of a masonic temple but none of the mystery: the Palo Alto Family YMCA on Ross Road. My mom pulled me by the dance room, where stay-at-home moms clad in uniform Lululemon performed the ritual of Zumba, and to my first Youth & Government meeting. Run by the YMCA, Y&G is a program in which over 3,500 students from all over California simulate the United Nations in middle school and the state government in high school.

It was another one of those mom-mandated activities, like art museums or eating asparagus, except for the fact that Y&G made me resoundingly afraid. As a typical 12-year-old, public speaking made me quake in my camp t-shirts and frayed jeans. This feeling extended not only to podiums but also to asking for permission to go to the bathroom in class or ordering food at restaurants. So on that first day, when I shakily introduced myself to a room full of strangers, I wished I was at Zumba instead.

Despite my initial distress, I returned in the following weeks. I battled icebreakers and impromptu speeches every meeting, but also found solace in the lively and amiable middle schoolers who joined me there. The camaraderie, acceptance and exemplars of outspokenness that surrounded me gave me permission to tentatively toe outside the walls I had built for myself, and in a supportive environment, the moments of hesitation and self-doubt — which held my vocal cords hostage — eased their grips.

Looking back, my journey to an increased sense of confidence runs in my head like those cheesy self-improvement montages you see in teen movies — spontaneous and happy-go-lucky. In actuality, it was a series of conscious and difficult decisions to push myself outside of my comfort zone — the decision to choose my freedom of expression over the possibility of judgment, the decision to endure hot cheeks and sweaty palms for the surges of adrenaline, and most importantly, the decision to not reject the possibility of failure but to embrace it.

With this fresh mindset, the roles I played, whether they be “delegate representing Venezuela” or “Senator Li,” remained even after I hung up my blazer. By extending the courage to take risks to my everyday life, no longer did I feel a glaring spotlight while paying for lunch or raising my hand in class.

But truth be told, at 17, anxiety still shadows my thoughts today — it just no longer owns me. Things will still daunt me, but I know that this time around, I have the skills and mindset necessary to face them.

Anxiety still shadows my thoughts today — it just no longer owns me.

Ultimately, it doesn’t take a mock government program to raise a child — it takes a child to raise a child. If you find asking for extra ketchup at In-n-Out like being examined under a microscope the way I did, it’s important to know that it doesn’t have to be this way forever. Find and take risks in a community that will love you for who you are, and pocket that spirit of adventure for later, when you feel prepared to do so in the greater scheme of life. And remember that your progress should be measured by your own sense of empowerment and never another person’s standards.

Now, let’s unfreeze the frame.

The black polyester sheath which swings about my suit is the robe of a justice. The Sacramento Masonic Temple houses the Y&G appellate court program, and “they,” my fellow delegates, are there to watch me perform in an example court case. I tell myself that I am prepared, and the fluttering in my stomach quiets. It’s just me and myself.

The bailiff picks up the microphone, and instructs the audience to rise.

“Court is now in session.”