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Swoon Author Shani Petroff: The True Story Behind ROMEO & WHAT'S HER NAME

In Romeo & What's Her Name, the main character Emily gets up on stage and attempts to perform Shakespeare without knowing her lines. She is mortified. The embarrassment is deep, and I should know, because the idea behind this scene came from my real life.

That’s right, I too humiliated myself in front of a crowd.

I was incredibly shy in high school, but never when it came to the stage. I loved to perform, and I took any opportunity I could get. That included a French poetry recitation contest—even though I didn’t really know the language at all.

I won the contest, which meant I got to move on and compete against students from other schools. I was excited—except for one thing. For my school, I got to read the poem off of a piece of paper. Next time I had to memorize it. 

I didn’t think it would be that hard. I memorized things all the time. I waited until the night before to get it done, but then something unexpected happened—I fell asleep.

I desperately tried to memorize the poem on the bus ride over to the contest, and when my teacher came and sat by me to hear me do it, I covertly tried to read it off of the paper on my lap. (Which FYI is very hard to do when someone is just inches away and staring at you. But I got through it well enough for her to leave me alone the rest of the ride. Although, apparently the French words for hair and horse are very similar, and I was using the wrong one.)

I got to the contest and my teacher fortunately went with one of the upperclassmen. She told me she would try to make it back in time to see me too. I prayed she didn’t.

I sat down and a few minutes later a really cute boy sat near me. We smiled at each other, and all I could think was how I would be humiliating myself in front of him in a few minutes. Then this girl who knew him came in and she gave me a nasty glare. I don’t know if it was because of the guy or because she was trying to psych out the competition, but she kept sneering at me. I remember thinking, she doesn’t have anything to worry about—I don’t stand a chance.

Before I knew it, it was my turn to perform.

I looked out at the crowd and in a loud, clear voice recited the first line. The problem was, I had no clue what came next. I called out “line” and this little old nun who was helping with the contest gave me my next line. I repeated after her and said “line” again.

Finally, I thought I remembered something. Only it turned out it wasn’t the poem, it might not have even been French. Eventually, I called “line” again. But the nun looked confused. I couldn’t blame her. There was no way she’d be able to follow along with what I was saying.

I looked out into the crowd, and I saw the “mean girl” (as I had dubbed her), and she looked like she was having a grand ole time. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the cute guy.

I wanted to go back to my seat. I wanted to duck my head and run for cover. But then I decided NO! I loved the stage, and I wasn’t going to cower from it. I wasn’t going to let myself be scared of it or let myself or anyone else take away that amazing feeling I got when I was in front of a crowd. So I turned back to the nun, who was still trying to figure out where I was in the poem, and I told her not to worry about it. 

I stood up extra straight, and in a split second came up with a plan. A really stupid plan, but I was going all in anyway.

I decided to pretend that I was the only person in the whole room who understood French, and that everyone else was the clueless ones. I then started reciting a “poem.” I put on a French accent and spit out random words and syllables. I ignored the whispering and the open-mouthed stares, and just kept making up gibberish. I projected my voice, made eye contact with the audience, and tried to exude confidence, all while freaking out inside.

When I was done, I didn’t just walk back to my seat. I held my head high, put on a smirk and sat down. I wanted to sink down into my chair, but I wouldn’t let myself. I just kept telling myself fake it, act like you won. And as I wanted to disappear into the floor I kept silently reciting, someday you’ll laugh about this, someday you’ll laugh about this, someday you’ll laugh about this.

That someday finally came. Now I always laugh (and cringe) when I think of that story (which may wind up in a book of its own one day). It reminds me that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves and that there’s always a way to turn things around. If it wasn’t for my humiliating experience, there may never have been a Romeo & What's Her Name. So in the end, to borrow from Shakespeare, all’s well that ends well!

Author spotlight

Shani Petroff

Shani Petroff is a writer living in New York City. She's the author of the “Bedeviled” series, which includes Daddy’s ...

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