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Those Silent Days
Stones—smooth, jagged, flat for skimming or coarse but tender like sheet of canvas, caressed between my thumb and forefinger within my tiny hands would always ease my nervousness whilst being in solitude. I picked up the habit for a short while during the summer after finishing first grade; I was stuck between the dog days of July and the simmering weeks of August during vacation in the dustlands of China, wandering from dirt trail to the next alone, scooping up individual stones of different colors and textures, each with a separate story. This plump steel-gray pebble from the grape gardens with the spiraling vines, that one with the bumps on the edges the color of salmon kicked aside from a rickshaw man riding home, and so on. Silent stories weaving from side to side in my head like koi swimming with a quickened pace in a calm pond made for cathartic release.
I always had these little vices, these little quirks that no one could really pinpoint an explanation to. From gritting my teeth, pressing against a paper with all my might in the grip of a ballpoint pen, to squeezing my eyes shut to keep my heart from pounding a hole through my chest in fear of....what exactly? What was it I was afraid of walking through the halls of my own school?
Always awkward, yet always bursting with a random thought, a twirl or spin or a jump, a blip of a showtune, a feminist rant, a scream of euphoria—these jolts of expulsion from my vocal chords that came in excess one day caused a tour de force chain reaction. First an emotion, then a concept, and finally a tangible idea that I would indeed execute for a test of self-acceptance or an act of masochism.
“Why did she decide to do this again?”
The question came during a study hall period that was supposed to be silent, but never ended up being so. These periods of free time for “working” were usually wasted for escapades to the library to yap about the latest gossip circling the school, TV shows, and “Oh my God did you hear what that teacher said to so-and-so”?
“Isn’t it because someone called her annoying?”
“No, he said she squealed like a dying pig.”
“Psh, yeah right. He only acted like he was a friggin’ dying pig.”
“That is a retarded reason. C’mon Megan say something.”
“Shut up. Just leave her alone you guys.”
“Well we all know she won’t last for a couple of days of this bull.”
Ah yes, the cynics. I glared from my history book with a look that could make a graveyard shiver with the cowardly shakes. I was done trying to fit the mold of the status quo, bending backwards against my natural inclinations to please my peers, my parents. If I had any control over anything at all—certainly not my emotions—it would be my voice.
By the second day I had formulated a system to communicate with my friends and some of my more accepting teachers through scribbling in a spare yellow notebook voicing my thoughts. In regard to the less understanding latter, I dodged questions or comments in class discussions and would flee with the first opportunity given since I didn’t want to bother explaining. Once the bell for dismissal rang at 1:50 PM, I was able to speak again under my own jurisdiction, although at home I was mostly silent anyway.
“Megan this is ridiculous. I miss your voice, it’s been too long!” They would cry out in desolation.
“It’s been 5 school days, I think we get it.” They would retort to my unmoving mouth and pursed lips.
Opinions ranged from approval and value of my new found vow of silence, to absolute distaste.
“Megan, when you have your own beautiful voice to use and you choose to neglect it, I think you are disrespecting those who cannot speak.”
“When you carry that dumb notebook around you are acting like a complete attention seeking, insecure, SQUIRREL.”
But still, the more they cajoled, teased, tittered, and instigated, the more I was determined to finish my goal of two weeks without a single word uttered during the school day. Throughout the talks of AP tests, the latest onslaught of spring hookups and breakups, and the infamous impending Prom night, I was unmoved in my promise I intended to keep. During the morning announcements during third period on the fourth day, I saw my yellow notebook snatched up from the corner of my lab station and being read silently by biology teacher at his desk. A couple of minutes later, he handed it back and said quietly, almost solemn, “You have a very…interesting life.” His expression serious.
This then followed by him yelling a few minutes later, booming, “EVERYONE IF YOU’RE NOT STUPID SAY WHOO!” After hearing a synchronized yell of WHOO, by the entire class excluding me, I was declared a dunce for the rest of the day.
Pork chops and green beans were served that Friday night after my first week of without talking, a monumental threshold indeed.
“How was school Meg?” My father asked me while grabbing the barbecue sauce with characteristic aggressiveness.
“Hm. Fine.” I said, and paused before continuing. “I’ve been taking a vow of silence.” I let the information pass over him like a wave washing ashore.
Dad doesn’t even look up from his can of Bud Light. “You have?” I can see him chewing this thought and the meat from his fork simultaneously. “That’s kinda strange. Why is that? You got in trouble for screaming "What the hell!" again during lunch like in middle school?”
I scowl at the memory. “That was 4 years ago Dad.”
In writing, the idea of silence was so straightforward; it made perfect, crystal-clear sense. Aloud with my own voice, it seemed foolish.
“I don’t know Dad. I think I talk too much. I’ve always been this hyped up, crazy…almost idiotic kind of girl.” I could feel my voice stumble out of step as I explained. “Outspoken, really. And it gets me into a lot of trouble sometimes. I think I need a break from that part of me. Maybe it’ll better me for the future.” I cleared my throat as I took a sip from my glass of water, feeling slightly dignified in my answer to my father’s question.
“That’s…really interesting to take that endeavor.” He said as he cut his piece of pork chop. “Though don’t you think that people might miss your outspoken qualities?”
“No.” I said flatly right away.
He laughed audibly. “You know you get them from me.” Dad says this with obvious pride. Of course he would be happy to show this off. He was that horrible nosy father who stuck his nose into every teacher’s business at school, so much that he was either feared or just a downright annoyance. “I admit I am a royal pain in the ass, but sometimes it really pays off when you can get you what you want.”
I sighed, and finished my dinner without so much of talking about the subject of my temporary selective muteness. While after school going over an old test on Tuesday, I am stopped by one of my favorite teachers in the hall who thought of my vow as an intriguing experiment.
“Still silent?” He asked and I shook my head.
“It’s after school, so I can talk.” I clarified.
He smiled and asked, “Are you hoping for what you thought you’d achieve in this exercise?”
I tugged on the straps of my backpack before responding. “Yes and no. I wanted to prove that I could do it to the people who didn’t think I was serious enough to. And that’s working.” I took a breath. “But, I wonder if this change should be permanent…If I should be quieter instead of Ms. Big Mouth. But a lot of people really don’t like that plan.”
“Of course they don’t!” He said this with feeling. “A lot of people would miss the real Megan. That goes for teachers too.” He paused before continuing, “Your personality stems from your voice, it is what makes you, your identity. Without that, how will you know if the person you’ve always been is really there?”
At home that night during a break from studying Spanish I flipped through the pages of my yellow notebook, thinking how convenient it was to have a record of what I said during the day. But I had to admit, with two days left of my challenge, would I learn to be more prudent with my voice, or truly value its ability of representing who I was? I pushed my chair away from my desk suddenly and a clatter of knickknacks from the adjacent shelf toppled to the ground.
“Damn,” I mutter, picking up my set of Chinese zodiac figurines and Magic 8-Ball. I looked down at my carpet once again to see a trailing of stones that once rested on my nightstand.
I fingered the pink-coral stone, the smooth skimming rock from the mountainside and the coarse sienna pebble from the dustland trails and the gardens of grapes and corn. I remembered my content to make up stories that went along with their corresponding locations, reviewing their origins and settings repeatedly to my satisfaction, how I always rubbed the smoothest ones to keep the anxious feelings away. Had I thought that just shutting away my voice temporarily would solve my imperfections for good? Hiding my true, awkward, gawky self would be nothing close to snapping my ability to speak in half…in that act itself, the Megan who collected these stones to aid her troubles would be lost in a swell of concession forever.
If I don’t talk…I give up.
I did achieve my goal of not talking for two weeks and all of my friends were ecstatic to hear me once again I am glad to report. I still have moments where I doubt that my self-worth is of anything at all, that encroaching nerves do get the best of me within my vulnerabilities. To fight this, I must awaken my inner-voice to survive.
Sometimes when I am quiet during school due to a long night of finishing up lagging assignments, one of my teachers will burst out in fear, “Megan are you on one of those speaking strikes again?!”
For some reason that always makes me grin.