In second grade, a school psychologist diagnosed me with “selective mutism,” which suggested that I decided to be mute. The word seemed accurate to me because, at some point, I thought I couldn’t possibly keep this level of charade going. But after a while, it became easier not to speak than to speak. I didn’t utter a word for two whole years.
It wasn’t until later that I fully recognized my reasoning for choosing silence. During my grade school years, I lived in a town called Newport in Jersey City, New Jersey. There, I attended a mostly Caucasian school where kids stared at my lunch of spicy salmon sushi and asked, “Did you get that seaweed from the ocean?” Or, “Won’t raw fish make you sick?” Or, “Do you ever get tired of eating rice every day?” This was the curse of being the only Chinese-American kid in Newport.
When I stopped talking, my school accepted my silence, except for one counselor who pulled me aside into a blue room and asked, “Why don’t you talk? Why don’t you talk?!” My response was to bite my nails and look at the cartoon stickers on her wall.
I knew they could force me to talk if they really wanted to, but by then I was more scared to talk than not because everyone expected me to be quiet.
My second-grade teacher Mrs. Williams would occasionally decide she was going to give it a try and call on me in class, asking, “Nian, what is two times nine?” All those little faces would turn to me, as if they were waiting for a rare parrot to speak its first words. With hopeful eyes, the whole classroom would wait for a moment, silently willing me to say something. Of course, I got used to those periods of quiet when everyone expected me to talk, but the more time went on, the more pressure I felt to make my first words monumental–like those of Abraham Lincoln: “Four score and seven years ago…” But I never spoke. After Mrs. William’s hope faded, her shoulders would relax and she would move on to the next kid and ask the same question. All the children would turn their attention away from me, somewhat disappointed that I had once again remained silent.
Occasionally, I would have a substitute teacher who would be unaware and would call on me, but a kid would pipe in and say, “She doesn’t speak,” to prevent the class from going through the whole awkward silence again.
Then one day a new kid showed up. She was a tall girl from Puerto Rico. Her name was Ivelisse, and she always wore long sleeves under t-shirts and had dark eyes that didn’t avoid eye contact when telling someone to shut up. When the teachers played music in the background while we would work on our art projects, she sang along in a carefree way as if she were the only person in the room. Looking back now, she was my foil–she was vocal and gregarious, and I was silent and timid.
As the year went on, Ivelisse and I always ate lunch together. To her, my lack of speaking was an opportunity to have an audience who could listen to her complaints. She would complain about her younger brother who picked his nose and the boy in our class who bit people. She would share her food with me–her homemade lemon bars, avocado quinoa salads, cream-cheese bagels, and spaghetti. During snack time in class, she swapped her granola bars for my Choco pies.
After school, Ivelisse’s mom would pick us up and walk us home. Ivellise and her mom would never pressure me to talk. Instead, they would chat about her braces or her ballet classes. One day, I reached into my bag and realized I forgot my keys. Seeing my troubled face, Ivellise asked, “What’s the matter?” even though she knew I wouldn’t answer.
Knowing I was away from all the mean kids who made fun of my lunch, I no longer felt the need to hide myself. I replied, “I don’t have my keys!”
“Oh my god. She spoke!”
Without keys, I had to spend my afternoon at Ivelisse’s house, which smelled like unfamiliar spices.
From her kitchen window, I could see the cherry tomatoes in the small backyard garden. Her grandmother was sorting the refrigerator, and her kitchen table was piled with newspapers and Strawberry Shortcake comic books.
Spanish TV shows played in the living room as her dad sat there watching. Her brother’s door was half open with a crooked basketball hoop nailed to it. Brooklyn Nets posters covered the wall.
When we got to her bedroom, Ivelisse asked me, “Why don’t you talk?” She looked at me as if she’d been waiting to ask this question all day.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“But you talked today,” she added.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“You’re talking to me now!” she said. She handed me her Nintendo DS to play Cooking Mama and suggested, “I have an idea. How about this? When you want to talk at school, you can just whisper in my ear and I’ll tell people what you have to say.”
“Okay.” The idea thrilled me although it sounded absurd.
The next day at school when Jimmy Miller was aiming spit wads at me, I whispered to Ivellise, “Tell him I hate him and knock it off.”
She paused and gave Jimmy a serious look and then said, “Nian thinks you have a ghost following you and you should watch out.”
Jimmy turned pale and put the spitball in his pocket, and I knew he was never going to aim a spitball at me again. I looked at Ivelisse and we shared a silent understanding that she was going to be my voice. But better. At the same time, I didn’t want her to do this for me forever. It made me feel as if I were a fraud, albeit a happy one.
The next time Ms. Williams called on me to answer a math question, I whispered in Ivellise’s ear, “I don’t know,” and she said to the teacher, “Nian says twelve and you look very nice today.”
Ivelisse began to answer for me all the time, but her answers were always different from my own as if she had created a character that was me but more interesting. One day, a boy made the mistake of making a rude comment to me about my lunch, saying, “Those dumplings smell so bad.” I kept my mouth shut, but Ivellise yelled across the table, “Nian says you smell bad!”
She gave me a smiling glance, and my face burned with a mix of shame and vindication. Around us, kids subtly began avoiding us. They would give us a wide path as we walked by and avoid eye contact. We were like the British monarchy of the past—capable of wielding frightening powers.
That following summer, Ivellise moved back to Puerto Rico. Before she left, I cried all night. I thought I would be losing the best friend I would ever have. She spoke for me, she accepted me, she invited me into her home, and she fed me empanadas. When I stopped crying, I knew I felt partly relieved. I no longer had to rely on her. I would have to rely on myself, but I hoped she had left part of her toughness with me. I hoped she would write me letters from Puerto Rico telling me how I should act without her. I wanted her to ask me how I was doing, and possibly send me pictures of her fifth-grade graduation, but for some reason, I never heard from her again. I imagined that the culture of Puerto Rico swallowed her up into a world full of delicious sofrito and fried plantains and happy Puerto Rican music, a world full of new friends, and she had forgotten her life in Jersey City and me.
At the start of third grade, as I sat in a classroom without Ivelisse by my side. The room was full of noisy third graders, and the teacher called on me to come up to the front. When I got to her desk, she asked, “How many textbooks are at your table?” I could tell from the look on her face that she was just testing me, like they always did, and she didn’t expect a response.
“Five,” I answered confidently.
When I turned around, all the kids were staring at me, and one kid whispered, “Oh my god, she speaks!”
And that was when the mystery that surrounded me was broken.
From then on, there were no more awkward silences when the world waited for me to talk. Nobody ever needed to say, “Nian says.” I spoke for myself.
Carly Fan is a junior who attends Great Neck North High School. She attended the Iowa Young Writers Studio the summer of 2019, and is also a past winner of the Walt Whitman Poetry Contest. During her free time she loves swimming and going on runs.