The world beyond my window is blanketed in four inches of cleansing, shushing, calming white powder. Having no commitments today that required me to bundle up and shovel out, I indulged in some quiet contemplation of the week’s events, which ultimately led to deeper scrutiny of my more distant past, as I watched the drifting flakes become malleable piles to be sculpted by the wind’s icy gusts.
I took on two new English students this week who both have a pretty good grasp of vocabulary and grammar, but would like some practice with listening and speaking. In our first meeting, the conversation naturally centered around getting to know each other, and the topic of childhood was discussed. One of the women, about my mom’s age, credited growing up with a strict father for her inability, even to this day, to speak her mind. As a girl, she was so apprehensive about his potential reaction that she learned to keep all her thoughts to herself, not to disagree, not to cause conflict. I heard echoes of my own childhood in her description—I was extremely quiet and reserved in my youth, though, thankfully, not out of fear of my parents.
I was painfully shy—I wouldn’t say “Boo” to my own shadow—and lacked any amount of self-confidence. Although there were a multitude of thoughts and opinions swirling in my head, I didn’t place much value on them, and didn’t relish the idea of having to expand upon or defend them. Combined with the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy hearing the sound of my own voice or drawing unnecessary attention to myself, I rarely gave my two cents worth to anyone. Even as late as high school, I was withholding any opposing viewpoints from my mother and ducking down alternate aisles in the grocery store to avoid saying “Bonjour” to my French teacher.
By senior year of high school, I was beginning to find my voice, thanks to the English teacher who appointed me editor of the school newspaper. I was forced by that responsibility to manage a team, which meant not only giving my opinion and talking to people I didn’t know well, but sometimes doing so assertively. The experience proved invaluable to me in college, where I found myself well and truly alone for the first time in my life, with no one to speak on my behalf. If that senior year of high school hadn’t been an injection of confidence to my ability to speak up for myself—to ask questions in class, to get directions in town, to befriend roommates and dorm mates—four years of campus life would have been unbearable.
Since college, I’ve occasionally been jealous of classmates who went directly into their chosen careers after graduation, and as a result have logged eighteen years in their respective professions. While it’s hard not to envy their certainty about the direction they needed to take (and their retirement funds), I can’t say I regret the winding road of my own work-life, for each job I’ve held while trying to find my true calling has exposed me to new situations that have intensified my voice. As a veterinary technician, a picture framer, a retail manager, a tutor, and a teacher, I’ve learned to speak with empathy, authority, humor, patience, sincerity, restraint, and clarity. Unlike my new English student, I am no longer reluctant to speak what’s on my mind. I will always have some residual shyness, and I often prefer to listen and reflect rather than contribute verbally to the conversation, but I know when it’s important to open my mouth and let my voice be heard.