Whenever I tell people I was incredibly shy in elementary school, I don’t think they understand just how shy. I never spoke. It was a painful quiet. A silent suffocation.
There was a time when I was content in my quiescence, merely observing other people’s lives happen before me. That is, until people brought up my silence in an almost cruel way.
“Why doesn’t she ever talk?” “Just say something already!” And the weirdly violent one, “If I pinch you, will you say something then?” Third graders are terrifying.
Every day, without fail, I had to endure people whispering either about or at me. I didn’t acknowledge them. I didn’t want to. It gave me a cynical satisfaction when they prompted me to speak and I didn’t obey. I only answered questions in class at the request of the teacher; I never willingly raised my hand. The other students would always gasp when I even uttered a sound.
I’ve thought about what might’ve spurred this sudden silence and can only come up with two events in my childhood that more than likely contributed. The first was when I was four years-old. My first language while growing up was Spanish, but I attended an English-speaking preschool taught by a somewhat stern Catholic sister. Because I had no idea how to speak or read in English, I spent most of my days merely observing people as they moved up reading levels and were rewarded with cookies. I remained stagnant, yearning for one of those cinnamon-flavored cookies. At one point, the sister got so frustrated that I wasn’t answering one of her questions, she yelled at me and compared me to a horse because all I’d do was nod or shake my head. Even though I didn’t speak in English, I understood she was humiliating me while mimicking me. Rather than driving me to speak, she had done the opposite. She made me even more self-conscious of what I might sound like if I attempted to speak.
I entered kindergarten knowing English, which I quickly picked up on from the books I read. This was much easier than actually speaking it aloud. I also went in thinking that the least amount of talking I did would keep me under the radar. I could read to my heart’s content, speak only when spoken to, and most importantly, not be yelled at.
This plan seemed to be going well until one time in class, I was sitting next to some friends I had made early on. I was already stressed because they were talking and giggling among themselves during the lesson. I could chat with them during breaks and outside of class, but during class? No. I was too traumatized to risk it.
The teacher looked over at our general area, assumed I was one of the raucous voices, and made us change our “behavior” cards from green to yellow. Luckily she didn’t make us change it to red because that meant severe consequences, like staying in during recess. Either way, I had been embarrassed once again for something I had no control over. I didn’t attempt to defend myself because she wouldn’t have believed me.
Since then, I vowed that I would never let that happen again. If I didn’t speak in class, then I wouldn’t get in trouble, it’s as simple as that. Without even realizing, it seeped into all other times while I was at school. Recess and lunch were spent surrounded by people, but not interacting with them. I had become so used to not saying anything, I didn’t feel like I had anything even worthy to say.
There’s two other moments, or people I should say, that broke the hushed exterior I had developed, when I thought I’d been silenced seemingly for good.
The first was in the second grade: I had had a crush on the same boy, Jude, since kindergarten. That’s an incredibly long time for a 7-year-old. (That’s practically love!) I gravitated toward him because he had the confidence I secretly desired. I’d been quiet for so long, it seemed impossible that I’d ever get to his level of courage. One time, I came across him talking to another student during recess. In that moment I was overcome by the feeling that I had to talk to him. This hadn’t happened before. I had friends, but even with them I didn’t feel like I had to talk to them. I could just be around them and giggle whenever I felt like it, but with him, it was different.
I knew I couldn’t waste this opportunity. I ran up to Jude and spoke about the first thing that came to mind: the callous on my finger. I know, fascinating stuff for a second grader, but it meant the world to me when he seemed captivated. He asked me questions about whether it hurt, how I got it, how he could get one because he wanted one, and most importantly, he never once seemed shocked that I was talking. I was then propelled to keep talking to him.
When these glorious five minutes were over, it was business as usual. I resumed my reticence and he went back to making jokes during class. He was never one of the ones who bugged me. It was like a silent realization between the two of us that I can speak, but only when I wanted to.
Fast-forward to the seventh grade. The comments about me from other students had stopped, with the exception of the occasional comment filtering through during times of boredom. Everyone had moved onto relationships, feelings, and all that gushy stuff, so rather than asking me why I didn’t talk, they asked me who I liked. Nobody cares about anything else in middle school. If you didn’t like anyone, like me, you could pass by undetected if you give the name of the most popular boy in class. Most of the girls like this one “popular boy;” you can’t get into a fight with any of them because there are too many of you.
I lied for five years about boys I was “crushing on,” because I hadn’t actively got butterflies for anyone since Jude and then…Enter: Stephen.
My life took a turn when I started to like him. I had known him my entire life, but this giddy nervousness around him developed almost instantly when I turned 13. He had been one of the ones who teased me about not talking, but stopped around the fourth grade when the amusement had worn off. I clicked with him. We liked the same bands, the same shows, and the same books. It made sense, which is why I didn’t even think about how unusual it was when I began talking to him. It happened naturally. I heard him talking about Panic! at the Disco and knew in that moment that I had found the person I wanted to talk to, so I did. It started by laughing at his jokes to me telling a few he’d laugh at.
People immediately picked up on it. They knew I liked Stephen. It was obvious because I never spoke to anyone, let alone a boy. But at that point, I didn’t care because I had his attention. He liked talking to me and began considering me a best friend. I was simply glad he seemed to enjoy my company, and I enjoyed his.
There was a day when a classmate came up to me and pulled me out of my love-struck stupor. He asked why I had started talking, both in and out of the classroom. I feigned disinterest as best I could and vocalized something along the lines of how I just got oh-so-tired of not talking. But, I know what really made me talk: love.
When I love ardently, I want to speak. I want to hear their voice and hear their laugh, but I want to be the one eliciting those responses from them. Love forced me to get over the unvoiced veneer I had developed after nine years.
I feel hesitant to say that two boys were who got me to want to communicate, but they did. I would like to take full ownership of my feelings, but I can’t. I couldn’t control how much I loved them. Jude was a small chip of what would come, while Stephen was the final shedding of the shell that then began to crack over time.
What struck me about the two of them was that they cared about what I had to say. In the brief time I spent with each of them, they didn’t ask me why I was suddenly talking, they asked me about me. They accepted me. They listened. This is exactly what I wanted. I spent so many years having to endure people attempting to induce a reaction out of me, that these two boys were a breath of fresh air. As fresh as you can get in a classroom riddled with post-PE sweat. I found, especially in Stephen (who is still one of my best friends), someone who was passionate about what I was passionate about and so, I opened up. No one had to force me to say anything. Love got me to speak.
Editor’s note: To protect the privacy of others, names have been changed.