“The first step to becoming a leader is confronting your own fears.”

There was chaos in the school. Students, teachers and six Americans ran. There was screaming and a look of terror in their eyes. It sounded like the school with orange, green and blue walls and a tin roof was under attack. Bang!… Bang!… Bang! I could not figure out what was happening at first as the students dashed out of the open air classrooms for cover. There was pushing, shoving, screeching and people yelling in Spanish and English. Suddenly, in the middle of all the commotion it became clear. It was raining (actually it was pouring) and there was a tremendous amount of wind and thunder and … mangos!

Some kids looked like chickens with their heads cut off, running around in circles and bumping into each other until they could find cover under a small tin roof. Falling on the tin roofs were mangos: pounding and coming down hard from the trees, they sounded like gunshots. The bravest kids played dodgeball with the mangos as they ran across the courtyard and collected the fruit that had already fallen on the ground. Some students were tossing mangos to one another in what looked like a game of hot potato. This is life in a Nicaraguan school in the summer.

You might be wondering what I, Christina Madden, a sixteen year old girl from a town of six thousand people in Massachusetts, was doing in a school in Chinandega, Nicaragua. There were times I wondered too. When I was asked to travel there with a team of six Americans to work with Nicaraguan students to help develop their leadership skills, I had that uneasy feeling of a child starting her first day of a new school: Will people judge me? How will I communicate with others? And even, Will there be bathrooms? “¡Hola!”, “¿Cómo estás?”, “¿Qué tal?” Their smiling faces, twinkle in their eyes and warm embrace, would assure me that everything would be okay. We had come to talk to students about being leaders and how to make changes in their lives, their communities and the world. The first step to becoming a leader is confronting your own fears. My heart skipped a beat and my palms were sweating as I told the class of forty high school students, “I have a fear of speaking in front of people because I think my peers will judge me.” I felt a bead of sweat drip down my face while I waited for the translation, “Tengo miedo de hablar enfrente de la gente, porque creo que mis compañeros me juzgarán.” My voice cracked when I asked, “Does anyone here share the same fear?” As I waited for one more translation, it felt like I stood there forever. Suddenly, one by one kids stood up from their desks to stand in concert with me until only four kids were left sitting. I was not alone.

At our leadership conference a week into the trip, we told participants to close their eyes and imagine they were traveling on a plane. They could “hear” a plane flying overhead. “CRASH!” They were deserted on an island and the only way they could survive was by trading and collecting a certain number of candies. In seconds, students were interacting with one another and they instantly became closer and found a common bond. We were a human knot of people, tangled up together from different cultures and economic backgrounds speaking different languages. Then we literallyformed a human knot in which we all came together, held hands and became a twisted jumbled mess working together to find a way to untangle ourselves. As students snaked their way through the knot, they were laughing and smiling. Being the only American in my group of ten people, I felt overwhelmed. I felt outnumbered and I initially was unsure how to interact or communicate. A glance, a gesture, unspoken words, close physical bond and laughter. Time flew by as we carefully uncoiled ourselves like a snake trying to come out of a box. “Si, si encima!” (“Yes, yes over!”). “No, no bajo!” (“No, no under!”). “Date la vuelta!” (“Turn around!”). People were climbing over hands like monkeys and slithering under hands and we were twisting and turning as if someone had wound us up. Children throughout the world have common emotions and reactions. Many of us come from different cultural backgrounds yet we have many emotional similarities such as fears of public speaking, fears of being judged by peers and a feeling we can not trust others. Throughout this experience, I have learned that no one is alone in the world. We traveled to seven schools, three radio stations and one television station promoting  leadership and we were welcomed everywhere we went. An experience like this gives you more knowledge about people throughout the world. I have come to learn that many young people have the same fears as me and I should not be afraid to take a stand. In taking a stand for myself, even if it is unpopular, I can give others the permission to acknowledge their fears, to recognize those fears and not let them hold them back. When we, as leaders take risks to take a stand, we allow our peers to follow our lead.

Barriers are broken through shared experiences. There are a couple things that I can take away from this experience and that is helping myself recognize and overcome my fears. To be a leader one has to have courage, responsibility, confidence and integrity. Courage is powerful because it allows a person to pursue their dreams. To be a strong leader we need to demonstrate responsibility, because if we are not responsible then how will anyone trust us and rely on us? Confidence is important. Leaders need to be confident because if they are not confident, people will not believe or agree with what they are saying. Last but not least, integrity is critical. Integrity does not just mean honesty. It also means reliability and a leader needs to be someone people can count on. It means doing the right thing even when no one is looking. If I can demonstrate these characteristics myself, I can help others no matter if they are like me or not, to create positive change in the world. Before I knew it, I had tears running down my face as I headed to the Managua airport. Now once distant memories, were the touches, smiles and laughters of my new found friends. This extraordinary experience had come to a halt. I could not believe it for one second; me, Christina Madden, now leaving the place that I had come to love, Chinandega, Nicaragua. But I had learned so much from my peers in only one week’s of time. How is it possible? As I sat in the airport sobbing, I tried to reflect on my experiences in Nicaragua. I learned more about myself though my peers who spoke little English and had a lifestyle so different from mine. There is nothing to be afraid of in life. Many of us have similar fears and an experiences like this is an experiences that make you stronger. Everyday is a new day so live with passion. 

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