I switched schools going into the sixth grade, and I was so quiet that my homeroom teacher used to ask me at the end of every day, in front of everyone, if I had talked to anyone. She used to yell at me for reading in class, even though she taught English, and she thought she was funny even though the jokes she told were three years too young for us. She wore cardigans that were too small, and her smile was thin and unpleasant. Her intrusion into my life was unwelcome, and every time she asked me this question, I would answer yes, even when it wasn’t the case.
My quietness wasn’t lonely. I had things that kept me busy and friends back home. I liked my silence and my ability to blend in unnoticed, and I had no desire to leave my place on the outskirts of attention. Yet my teacher’s comments created an unnecessary self-consciousness that made me hotly tear up whenever someone asked me a question that I didn’t know the answer to.
So in order to avoid these questions and the subsequent embarrassment, and despite my teacher’s complaints and concerns, I read. I took out dozens of books from the library, and I would sit in the back of the class. Knees together, toes pointed to keep my lap flat, back hunched to see the print, I would melt away into the story of the day. I don’t remember what kinds of books I read in sixth grade. All I remember is that I read them with a kind of desperation. I wanted to envelop myself in the pages. I would steal glances at paragraphs whenever the teacher lectured, and when we were given worksheets to complete, I scribbled through them and carried on with my book.
I wasn’t a writer. I was a reader. I went through hundreds of books with all kinds of storylines and characters and thematic concerns, and most days, I didn’t talk to anyone. I explored sunken ships and fell in love and walked along deserted highways with people I met at bus stops. I had my first job at a boutique store, whispered with my best friends, and acted strong when confronted with the things that scared me. Like dark places and tight corners and people I didn’t know if I could trust. I witnessed more things than most, and I did it all without having a single conversation.
As I read through the library, the stories got more similar. The character’s voices blurred together and I started rechecking out books, forgetting that I already knew their endings. I got plots confused and scenery mixed up, and it began to feel more like a chore and less like an escape. I read and read and read, and then I got tired of reading.
It was no longer enough for me. I felt claustrophobic, surrounded by the pages that I had buried myself in. I felt bored. I felt boring. I wanted to be like the characters I read about, with their cool, strong voices, and I wanted to be able to talk without crying or stuttering or searching for words that were strewn around the inaccessible parts of my head.
So I started to pretend that my voice was purposeful, like some author had edited out the ramblings and hesitations. I would pretend that I wasn’t shy. I would pretend that I had something to say and that that something was imperative to all the plots of all the characters around me. Like the dialogues I had read with fervor, I began to speak concisely and deliberately. And with the voices of thousands of characters and authors alongside me, I put my books down and sacrificed my reading time in order to be present in my own story.
I didn’t start writing until college, until it became clear that my story was going to once again be filled with silence. My quietness was swallowing me up as I made this big change, moving states and schools, even though I had worked so hard throughout middle and high school to get rid of my nagging shyness.
It returned as I was confronted with unfamiliarity.
I entered my dorm, and was overwhelmed when girls started asking me questions. I knew the answers, but I couldn’t seem to grasp them as they swam around my head. I didn’t cry, but as I was pushed into groups of people, I couldn’t contribute. When I would finally think of something to say, I would hesitate with my thought for just one second too long, and the moment would pass. My comment would become delayed and out-of-place, so I never made it.
It didn’t take me too long to figure out that I only talk when I’m accustomed to the situations that I am in. I seem to only find my voice when I know the voices around me and when I’m able to assess how my speech fits in.
So at college, I fell into silence.
I couldn’t turn to books, because this time, I was aware of my tendency to be content with reading and not participating. I knew that if I let myself curl up in corners and hunch over in chairs, I would fall into book after book, never once emerging to talk to anyone. And I knew that if I did that, I would get bored of the books and myself, quicker than it had happened the last time.
So I turned to writing. I started off with journal entries that transcribed my day and my feelings. I took a brief detour with poems before I realized that my scattered voice was not going to be lyrical. Next, I wrote detailed descriptions of the new situations that I was in. At this point, writing became my way of assessing my surroundings and putting myself into stories before I had to assert myself by talking. I was able to organize my thoughts and strengthen my voice by myself, with as many stutterings along the way as necessary.
I recorded my voice and searched through it until I found the parts I liked. I practiced my speech and kept hold of the character that I had created for myself from the sixth grade onwards.
And on paper, my distinct personality began to come through. Unlike reading in the sixth grade, writing was a way to participate in my own story without overwhelming myself with the loudness of it all. My comments are never delayed. There’s no pressure to be memorable. I can take my time becoming comfortable in new situations, and I can explore my own train of thought without the stare of people who I don’t yet understand. I can put my story down on paper before I have to act it out.
Emily is a sophomore at the University of Michigan, where she is studying Economics, Mathematics, and Writing. Originally from Boston, she roots for all New England teams and hopes to work in the sport business industry.