Stephanie Lines first heard my voice during AP Literature.
I was fifteen, a sophomore in high school, sitting in class when Stephanie turned around to pass a stack of papers. I thanked her, but she continued to stare at me. Her face was confused and bore a ruffled brow. I thought perhaps I’d taken her paper by mistake, but that was not the case. I felt my face for any remnants of my recent lunch, but there were none. I subtly checked my breath.
â€œIs something wrong?â€? I asked.
â€œThat’s the first time I’ve ever heard your voice,â€? she said.
I’m often told I’m quiet or not talkative. And whenever someone mentions this, I think of John Wayne as an American boxer living in Ireland, carrying a dark secret in the film The Quiet Man. It turns out Wayne likes to speak more with his fists when he fights a man in the streets, but the title sticks with me and is one I like to embraceâ€”minus the sordid history and street brawling.
Silence, as I’ve come to learn through the years, is feared by some. In a society that believes in freedom of speech, everyone has something to sayâ€”the absence of which is cause for suspicion. If my life were a procedural TV crime drama, I would be the reserved, mild-mannered suspect interviewed early in the show who quickly turns into a murderer by the conclusion.
When you’ve been quiet for so long, it’s hard to change your ways, just as it’s harder to learn a language after a certain age. But I’ve found that when my mouth isn’t open, I’m listeningâ€”professors lecturing, students walking across campus, the crack of a wooden bench as a pianist plays the â€œClaire de Lune,â€? women debating on how to cook a lobster on a train ride to Chicago.
It’s jewels like these that keep my mouth shut and ears open.
I learned to do this as a teenager from my father, lessons that seemed more like nagging than anything useful like getting girls. â€œWe are constantly hearing,â€? he often told me. â€œBut listening requires much more attention to detail.â€?
Sometimes I wonder what would be different if I spoke out and what I could miss, but I can’t create any alternative history. Instead I like to imagine what other people pay attention to when they aren’t talking, what makes their ears tune and buzz. I ask whether I will have the chance to hear what others think as special.
Maybe I’ll never get to have my say in a subject or bring order to chaos, but I’ll always be listening to those who do. Don’t fear the sileâ€”did you hear that?
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