She must have been only two years old, that day at the bagel shop when the man behind the counter seemed so taken with a quiet girl I know. He asked her several questions while he worked on our sandwiches, but she refused to answer. She only watched him. When he turned his back to get something a few steps away, though, she whispered so quietly only I could hear, “I’m very shy.”
I don’t know if she meant for him to hear it. But I love that she spoke up.
I try not to use the word shy very often. Get her alone and she has a ton to say, as long as you make room for her to speak. But with a rather outgoing brother and a very outgoing sister, she is the one who will stand back, stay quiet, take up as little space as possible. She is often quiet.
What most people see is a very good little girl, carefully held together, delicate. In her dreams—what I know of them at least—she is strong and fierce and wild.
* * *
There was another girl once, a quiet girl in a Jr. High art class who sat alone because she didn’t really know anybody in the class and because she was there to draw, anyway. Because she was quiet and well-behaved and sitting alone, her table became the place to put the disruptive students. Because she was quiet and busy drawing, the other kids talked as if she was not there, and she heard stories. Of skipping school, and hickeys, and gangs, and the older girl who was found shot dead in the park the quiet girl’s school bus drove past every day.
There is something about keeping yourself partly-hidden that allows you to see differently.
A year or two earlier, in sixth grade, the same girl was pulled out of class one day by a speech therapist, who asked her to read out loud. She read very carefully, and very well, and the therapist told her that no, she probably didn’t have a speech problem, but one of her teachers had been concerned because she seemed to stutter when she raised her hand in class. The girl knew which class this was, because the therapist had let slip that it was a female teacher who had been concerned, and the girl’s only female teacher that year was for English—her favorite class. She thought about the rush of shakiness that went through her body whenever she raised her hand, and how sometimes it was hard to get the words out, and she decided it was easier to stay quiet.
She learned she had other ways to speak.
Writing things down was perfect, because her nervousness was hidden. She could get everything out without interruptions, without being told why she was wrong. Putting her words on paper gave her time to think, and gave her a safe distance from which to speak more boldly.
By high school she realized she could speak with her violin, too. She had been playing as long as she could remember, but she rarely thought of it as more than a daily activity. One day, though, she realized while she was playing that she could close her eyes and speak right through her instrument. And she had a new voice.
* * *
I worry, sometimes, that there is a danger in being quiet, in keeping part of oneself hidden, in finding roundabout ways to speak. The hidden-ness can become a habit. When something breaks open inside of this quiet girl I know—I suspect that’s something that happens to everybody at some point—when she steps forward and starts to speak out loud, will it seem like a betrayal to those who thought they had been seeing all of her all along? Maybe all that practice finding other voices, coupled with the strong, fierce, wild self that she nurtures in her dreams, will serve her well.
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