When I was in seventh grade, my mom had to come to the middle school for a conference with my math teacher. At issue? Not my homework or test scores, but the fact that I never smiled. I’m not sure why this warranted an intervention. I wasn’t depressed or bullied or unable to remember my locker combination. I was just a 12-year-old girl with a face that couldn’t mask my apathy for algebra.
I never spoke up in classes throughout high school. I was shy but had some friends, hated how I looked, and felt certain everyone around me had secret stores of confidence. School was easy but that didn’t seem unique. My year was full of crazy smart girls taking up most of the seats in honors classes and physics labs. I didn’t worry about trying to hide my brain, I just didn’t care enough to. When I was forced to participate, I hated it. The only time I ever cried in public was sharing a magazine collage poster about myself in tenth grade English in front of the whole class. In twelfth grade, when my essay was the sample on the overhead projector, everyone had positive comments but I sat silent, never acknowledging that it was my work.
I’m the oldest of six kids with extremely strict and religious parents. The expectation—whether for cleaning my room or learning Japanese—was perfection. Early on I realized the impossibility of reaching such heights. I made mistakes: spelling words wrong, burning my neck when trying to curl my hair, or adding too much water to the Jello so it wouldn’t set right. So I turned inward, hiding my cares and fears and dreams, rather than face certain rejection or failure.
I headed off to university at 17 as an English major. I was 2500 miles from home, living with five strangers, overjoyed with the freedom of a fresh start. My first class was English 251: Critical Theory. No freshman composition for me thanks to Advanced Placement credits. The room was in the basement of a 1970’s era building with no windows, no fresh air, and those buzzing fluorescent lights that make you feel like you’re slowly going insane. That initial day of the semester a handful of seniors stood inside the classroom door trying to register so they’d be able to graduate on time. One other freshman and I sunk low in our chairs, unsure how we’d been able to score seats in this popular course.
I looked around and felt way out of my league. My internal bravado about myself as a reader, writer, and future teacher faded in the face of my inexperience. These people had well-worn backpacks, wedding rings, and five o’clock shadows. All semester I read texts that blew my mind. There were so many ways to look at literature and the world. I was fine with the homework but I tried to hide during discussions lest anyone noticed me and realized I didn’t belong.
One day, maybe a month into the term, I listened to all these upperclassmen around me talking about some theory or another. I thought to myself, that’s not right. Upperclassman, you’re an idiot. Even I know more about this than you do. I’m sure my face screwed up as I thought this, with some eyebrow-raising and lip-twisting.
Before I knew it my hand was in the air. The professor called on me by name and not just with a pointed finger. I don’t remember what I said or even the topic. I do know that my voice was loud, not soft, and that I did not phrase my comment like a question, the intonation rising at the end.
The earth did not stop spinning. The lights did not flicker and explode. No one laughed or ignored what I said. I held my own. My face was flushed with nerves, but I’m pretty sure I sat up a little taller. No tears or panic attack came. Someone responded to my comment and the class moved on. I’d done it. I had participated, been on par with my peers, and survived to tell the tale.
By the next year, no one in my life believed that I had once been quiet and reserved. I held lip-synched dance parties for my depressed roommates, dyed my hair a new color almost every month, and pretty much felt on top of the world. The thing is, I hadn’t really changed: I’ve always been a thinker and questioner and I’ve always been opinionated. The sole difference was that now when I opened my mouth I didn’t fear looking like a fool. I’m sure I did come off as ridiculous sometimes, but that was a reasonable price to pay.
It took some years to learn to moderate my newfound confidence. I admit to being that person—you know, the one with a comment about everything. I may have shaved my head once or twice and stuck my foot in my mouth much more than that. But after bottling up so much for so long, once the dam was breached it was hard to shut down the flow of words and enthusiasm again.
I work part-time as an instructor at the local community college. For my first years, I only taught at night after working my regular day job. I rarely saw any colleagues and never got evaluations or feedback from a supervisor. When I was hired the department chair gave me a textbook and schedule, wished me good luck, and that was it. I could have hung out with my class and made paper airplanes all semester for all anyone knew, as long as my grades were submitted on time.
Twice a year, everyone at the college gets together for start of semester meetings. In a large auditorium, surrounded by real professors, my loser outsider feelings come rushing back. I never feel like I’m dressed right. I wonder what table I should sit at. For years, these meetings were anxiety inducing, filling me with dread and doubt. Despite the confidence I’d gained and practiced in most areas of my life—including in front of a classroom—this professional scenario threw me.
It took about five years to stop getting a stress migraine from the start-up meeting. It took another year or two until I was comfortable with small talk at a table full of strangers. A semester later, I finally willingly asked questions or voiced my opinion in the break-out sessions. With only two chances to practice each year, my progress towards ‘cool and collected’ was slow.
Last year I angrily spoke up about a policy change unfairly targeting part-timers like me. I didn’t yell. I calmly said my piece even when others tried to cut me off. When my boss hedged and deflected the issue, I didn’t let it go. My cheeks burned and my pulse raced. In my head, a voice told me to shut up and to know my place. But my heart reminded me that I did know what I was talking about. I deserved to be here, I’d worked hard and had valid concerns. So I stood my ground and forced the uncomfortable conversation. I worried throughout the rest of the meeting that I’d committed career suicide, that I’d open my email soon to read how my services were no longer needed.
It didn’t happen. The boss I stood up to? She’s engaged me more as a peer than a peon ever since. I can now imagine what my next decade might be like if I stop having to relearn this lesson every time I encounter a new situation.