How I Lost My Voice
I went to a weird elementary school. It was a hybrid between co-educational and single sex classrooms. The idea was that as children grow older, the differences between the ways boys and girls learned beomce more distinct: kindergartners and first graders had co-ed classes, but from second grade to 8th grade, the classes were split into single sex classrooms. At seven and eight this never seemed strange to me, and I assumed all schools followed this model, until at soccer practice a girl on my team was telling a story about how a boy in her class was trying to convince everyone that Spiderman was the best superhero. I asked her what a boy was doing in her classroom, earning laughter from my teammates and a concerned glance from my male coach.
A benefit of this single sex environment, especially at a young age, was that there were no boundaries in the classroom. I was outgoing and opinionated and I had a comment about everything. I wasn’t the exception; all my peers were like this. Class lectures were more of a discussion and when a student didn’t understand something, she didn’t have a problem asking the teacher six times to explain it again. The idea of leadership wasn’t a concept because everyone was an equal contributor, so when in 7thgrade my school tried to implement presidents, all eighteen girls in my class ran.
When we were in 8th grade however, the school decided to mix classes only for math, separating students based on math level rather than gender. I remember all the girls huddling with excitement at what this new change would mean and planning out all the new jewelry we would wear on the first day of integrated classes.
In my new hoop earrings (stolen from my mother’s jewelry box that morning), I sat in the front of the classroom with my best friends, excited to show the boys how smart we were being the only four girls in the advanced section of the integrated classes. That day, our teacher handed out a pre-test to gauge the class level. With the excitement of having the boys in our class, and the excitement from the earrings I swiped from my mother (which I decided made me look very mature), I breezed through the pre-test and finished first. When I returned to my seat after turning in my test I felt something hit my back and saw a crumpled note lying on the floor next to me.
I picked it up, sure it was a compliment of my intelligence and speed, a marriage proposal, or whatever else 8th grade girls thought 8th grade boys could provide. Not wanting to get caught with the note, I kept it in my pocket until five minutes before class was out when my teacher had her back to the board.
I goofily smiled as I unraveled the note, planning how I would tell my mother about my new boyfriend and hoping she wouldn’t be too mad about the earrings.
I felt the room spinning and my smile fade as I repeatedly read the words on the page. Show-off. Show-off. Showw-offf. Showwwofffff. My tears hit the paper, blurring the letters in my eyes and the words on the note. I sat in my seat motionless, not even realizing class had let out and all my friends had left. I heard a chair scoot up next to me and my teacher whisper “what’s wrong?”
I silently handed her the note and dug my head into my arms on the table, wondering where I had gone wrong in my life.
After a few moments she laughed softly and I raised my head, confused.
“What? Are you really going to let a stupid boy tell you who you are and how you life your life? Angela, never let a boy–or anyone for that matter–justify your existence. ”
I took her words to heart and continued participating as much as I always did in class, deciding boys were just a big stupid disappointment anyway. When I switched to an all-girls high school in 9th grade, I realized I was surrounded by other girls who didn’t mind showing off that they were intelligent or arguing with each other in class discussions or even running for leadership positions because they thought they were the best candidate no matter what anyone else told them.
When I transferred to a co-educational boarding school at the start of 10th grade I quickly learned, just like I had on the soccer field in second grade, that my educational environment was not the norm. I tried to apply my comfort in a single sex classroom in the coed classroom and quickly learned society wasn’t okay with this.
A few weeks into my first term at my new school, a teacher pulled me aside after class and told me that I needed to “participate less and give others a chance to talk.” What? I left the classroom confused and not understanding what she meant by participate less. But I had things to say! Did she mean just not say them? Why would I do that? In class the next day when we were discussing our reading, my teacher asked a question and by instinct, my hand shot up. Her eyes met mine, she gave the smallest shake of her head and I slowly dropped my hand down. She gave a small nod and called on a boy.
I couldn’t understand my teacher’s request for me to contribute less in class. I thought back to the moment in 7th grade when my teacher told me I should never justify my existence based on what other people, especially boys, thought about me. Did she mean teachers too?
I slowly began to realize however that what my English teacher said was true. In comparison to the other students, especially the other girls in my classes, I talked in class five times as much. I convinced myself to talk less, telling myself that it would give others the opportunity to participate more. But by junior year I learned that I had taken my teachers’ advice too much to heart.
During midterm reports, my Junior year English teacher commented that, “Angela writes well. She needs to participate more in class.” I stood in my dorm not understanding how things had changed so much in just a year, from going from someone who participates too much to someone who participates not enough. When had I decided to let society change who I was? I promised myself I would change that.
In English class the next day, I tried to force myself to participate. I would raise my hand then drop it down, reminding myself that what I had to say was probably stupid and wouldn’t contribute to the conversation. When, after the third time of backing out of participating, my teacher called on my before I dropped my hand, I mumbled something related to the text. Immediately I could feel my blood rushing and my face reddening. My palms began to sweat and I grabbed my pen, drawing a large, thick circle on my notebook and wishing I could escape into it. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I carved into the wooden desks, reminding anyone who sat there next of who I was.
It was a painful process trying to teach myself how to speak in class again. I found myself clinging on to the responses of my peers. If someone said they agreed with what I had said, my confidence soared and I would try and raise my hand more. The few times people disagreed, I would hide my head and draw circles on my page.
In college with large lecture halls filled with 200+ students, the idea of speaking up is intimidating. While I can’t say I participate nearly as much as I did when I attended an all girl’s school, I try to be a voice in the classroom. Every now and then, I still draw circles on the page, but I try and remind myself that I am the only person who can ever justify my own existence and the way other people perceive my intelligence most definitely does not.
Originally posted on SPARK
More articles in WMC FBomb by Category: Education, Feminism, Girls, Misogyny
More articles in WMC FBomb by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, Title IX, High school, Sex education, College