Silence came in seventh grade. It was in seventh grade that I began the first of six years at a private school. In those six years I realized that it was not only I who had lost their voice; I was one among many who were denied the opportunity to speak.
I distinctly remember the first time they betrayed me and informed me that my voice was invalid. A close friend of mine from elementary school wanted to attend and I was telling others about him- telling them how neat he was. The three people whom I had felt I could trust- the headmaster, academic dean, and dean of students- cornered me and attacked me for things that I had supposedly said. They did not believe me when I pleaded my case, saying, “He is my friend. Why would I say such horrible things?” They three looked at each other, stuck their noses in the air and simply explained that it sounded like the kind of thing I would do. They did not know me. They had accepted a rumor as truth. They attacked me and disregarded my testimony. Unfortunately, this moment was merely the beginning of the silencing. It continued until the day I graduated. They condemned me for being curious and outspoken and lively. They shut me down for every brilliant idea I proposed, telling me that it was against the rules. I lived, quite literally, in this silence. I could not win by being myself, so I engulfed myself in obtaining their approval through silence and obedience. And I remember exactly what he said to me when I left. On June 4, 1999 my headmaster said to me, “Saint James has really changed you. You’ve really calmed down a lot. You’ve become a real lady.” I finally gained his approval, but at what cost? Even then, when I was leaving, I could not find the voice to scream at him and tell him how deeply he had hurt me. I did not have the voice to tell him about all the pain he had brought me. I did not have the voice to tell him that I would have forfeited all of the “ladiness” I had gained over six years if I could have my voice back.
Saint James taught me to bottle my emotions, because whenever I was open with them I would get in trouble. Adults of thirty-five condemned me for being thirteen and having questions. They not only condemned me for having questions, but they condemned me for being angry and hurt and sorrowful and confused. They didn’t help me deal with or process my emotions; they taught me that it was better to conceal my emotions, because then I wouldn’t get in trouble for having them. So, conceal them I did. I shoved them back into the recesses of my mind and heart and would tell myself to keep going. I would tell myself not to cry. I would tell myself that if I cried, they would ask what was wrong and then I would get in trouble for being honest and angry. I didn’t want them to see how deeply they were hurting me. I did not want their pity. And so it slowly became that every emotion- wonderful and bad alike- got caught in my throat. I slowly stopped crying when I was upset. I locked myself in my room and yelled at them in my mind when I was angry. And when I fell in love for the first time, I couldn’t even tell him that I loved him. I lost all ability to vocalize my emotions.
I lost my voice as a person first, a woman second. I was silenced for being the person I was before I was ever told that “ladies” didn’t act that way. No one had ever informed me that I was the wrong type of lady. No woman or man I had known before seventh grade had ever told me that being “me” was wrong. “Ladies” didn’t speak out. “Ladies” didn’t express their anger. “Ladies” were quiet and flowery and gentle. The boys were allowed to be crude and raucous and vulgar, but not me, not the “ladies.” The “ladies” played tennis and field hockey. The “ladies” were diligent and sweet students. “Ladies” smiled at everyone and cried tears fit for angels when they were sad. At the end of every academic year, an award was given to that student who best exemplified the qualities of a gentleman or lady. It was made painfully clear to me that I was no lady.
And then others began silencing me, too. It was no longer just the institution, but the other victims silencing each other as well. Other students told me that what I was doing was wrong, that I needed to behave or act more like a girl. They called me a femi-Nazi when I didn’t even know what the word meant. They ridiculed me for being the only girl on the soccer team and then they ridiculed me for not being able to play with the “big boys.” They ridiculed me for climbing trees and playing in the mud. They ostracized me for not doing my hair or my make-up. They made fun of me when I started growing breasts. My basketball coach yelled at me when I got my period for the first time in the middle of a game. I clearly understood that the woman I was becoming was unacceptable. I clearly understood that there was only one type of woman that was allowed at that institution and that I could either conform or leave. I chose to conform. It took me six years- until my senior year- to realize that I had sacrificed myself for their approval. It had also taken me six years to finally find an outlet for my voice- art. It was the only voice of mine that they ever acknowledged or supported. I was never acknowledged for my woman.
When I lost my voice at Saint James, I lost much more. I lost the ability to speak with the two people whom I had always had open communication with: my parents. I not only stopped asking them questions, but I forgot how to ask them my questions. I forgot how to tell them I was angry. I not only bottled away all of the emotions I felt by being at Saint James, but I also began to do it with my parents. There was absolutely nothing that I could say to them, nor did I wish to say much at all to them. Mom didn’t understand and Dad just didn’t careor so I thought. And so I stopped. I stopped admitting that I was angry. I stopped asking “why” when I didn’t understand. I disregarded my own feelings, because I had been shown that they were invalid and worthless anyhow. I stopped talking about things that were happening to me, things done to me by both the School and the students. I never told them how badly I hurt. And every time I tried to, I would get a lump in my throat.
And then I actually did. I was diagnosed as having hypothyroidism at age fifteen. I didn’t even know what it was. The only thing my doctor asked me was, “Do you talk about your feelings much?”
It’s taken me almost twenty years to realize how badly I have been wanting to scream. Twenty years for me to realize all the vulgarities I would absolutely love to shout at my old headmaster. Twenty years for me to resolve the old pains I felt and caused other people. Twenty years for me to start standing up for my voice, my emotions.
So you ask me how it would have felt if I could have had a place of women to go to. You ask me how my life would have been different if I could have gone to the women’s lodge and listened to them talk of the wonders and mysteries of womanhood. You ask me what I would have done if I had been able to speak to the pain and sorrow and joys of my life. In all honesty, I don’t know how it would feel, I don’t know what my life would be like, and I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t remember ever having more than one woman support me in my life as a female; I don’t know what it would be like to have a mass of women supporting me. I don’t remember how it used to be when I had a voice, when my emotions and I were acknowledged. The only answer to your questions that I can offer is this: I think I would cry. I would like to cry very much. And then I would like to sing.