Sharing My Voice

One hand will suffice, purple shirt kid.

On every report card I’ve ever received from kindergarten through senior year of high school, the recurring note has been: ‘I wish she would share her voice more in class.” This comment bothered me every time I saw it, and every year I really made an effort to speak up more, but I still got those same remarks and they tormented me to no end. I am a naturally soft-spoken individual and I’ve always struggled with making myself heard. People sometimes have to lean into me when I talk and say ‘what?!’ (I’m sorry if I’ve ever put any of you in this situation; I am fully aware how annoying it is.) Before I arrived in August, I made a promise to myself that from now on I was going to be the outgoing, fearless participant my teachers always wanted. Despite my vows, since settling here at Kenyon it has become startlingly clear that I am still terribly uneasy in class discussions.

With my friends, I can babble like no one can hear me (it’s possible they can’t half the time.) Yet, put me in a circle of desks and I turn into a bobble-head doll: head nodding incessantly, eyes alight, but lips rarely opening except to agree, chuckle, or give a little ‘mhmm’ like I’m on the phone and trying to signal to the person on the other end that I’m still there. I am the poster child for active listening. Now, if only I could force myself more often into the action of speaking.

When I prepare for discussions I am bursting with ideas, pencil flying as I fill page after page of notes with observations, questions, and ideas cluttered by an explosion of arrows and stars: a firecracker of inspiration and excitement. But, when I open up that notebook on the desk in front of me, I quickly fizzle out.

In part, it’s due to my horrendous timing in conversation. Someone else jumps on a point first, followed by seven others with thoughts to add, and by the time there is  a free moment for me to pipe up, the topic has already been exhausted and the class is rearing to move on. Far be it for me to insist on backtracking to a discussion that ended ten minutes ago: that would only irritate people. So I hold back out of sheer awkwardness and the professor opens up a new topic, and while I’m in a frenzy mashing together a coherent response so I will be sure to get in there this time, the same eager students pounce and the cycle repeats.

But this is a flimsy excuse. I doubt I’d talk more even if I could beat my classmates whose hands are high above their heads long before the professor has finished explaining.  I can’t blame my dilemma on others have faster reflexes. The true reason I hold back is my fear that what I’m thinking is unnecessary, uninteresting, or quite simply unintelligible.

I obsess over being original. I don’t like to add anything to the discussion that isn’t brand new in some respect or points out something intriguing, and another classmate always seems to have the idea first, making my response redundant and not worth taking up valuable discussion time. But even when I have something I know is unique, I often can’t bring myself to raise that hand because I worry that I won’t be able to articulate my thoughts convincingly.  I tell myself it’s safer to stay silent. It would be rude to subject everyone to the madcap scramble that is my brain and the last thing in the world I want is to sound unprepared or downright incomprehensible.

As an aspiring English major, words are important to me. In fact, words are a fixation to the point where I agonize over every single one. As I formulate a response, I am mentally deleting words here, rearranging structures there, and searching for a stronger phrase in this sentence so I’ll have a concise, intelligent comment. This is no problem on a piece of paper or a computer monitor with the miracles of erasers and backspace bars, but I can’t take back what I say. Verbal speech cannot be edited like an analytical essay. If I truly ‘spoke my mind’ it would be excruciating to listen to: ‘In this passage, I think Austen is saying- no no, suggesting- er no she’s really more implying- no scratch all that, I believe she is demonstrating in this paragraph-quote-aargh’ (GET ON WITH IT.) I have a compulsive need to sound eloquent, smart, and confident even while my palms are clammy under the desk and my cheeks are burning like the fiery pits of Mordor. It is imperative that my speech remain composed despite my body melting into a jittery wreck.

I realize that many of my classmates must have this natural fear of sounding like an idiot, but they still regularly make points and add interesting views regardless of how perfectly everything is phrased, or if everything they say even makes sense. I’m ecstatic if I speak up once in an entire class period though I usually have much more I’d like to say. I applaud everyone’s confidence and hope that in time I can join your intrepid ranks. One of the main reasons I chose a smaller liberal arts college was for the small, intimate classroom settings, but my passion for intense discussion based courses is ironic considering how anxious I feel about participating in them. Given that my chosen path of study is going to involve hours and hours of analyzing all manner of literature, I know I’m going to have to feel more at ease in those circles of terror. I doubt I’ll ever be the first person to wave their arm in the air at every question asked, but with practice I know I can learn to feel more comfortable being uncomfortable and stop bobble-heading along so I can actually be a valuable member of the conversation. Mainly, I just have to tell that little voice of perfectionism in my head to shut up, because the voice that others can actually hear has things to say. In fact, I have a lot to say, and maybe others would be interested to hear it. It’s still going to be a long, difficult battle, but I am going to do my damnedest to make use of all those excited notes I spend all evening writing, and share my voice.


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