When I was younger, I thought my voice was important. I was always answering questions in class and trying to hold conversations with adults because I thought I could. And then at some point in my life, it dawned on me that not everyone wanted to hear what I had to say.
Some of the kids would make snide comments about being a teacher’s pet, and I would be interrupted by adults who didn’t have time to listen to the eight year old trying to comment on their adult topics. And that took a toll. I raised my hand less and kept my mouth shut around the adults a lot more.
I don’t think I realized how much until college.
Once you hit college, participation matters. It’s a part of your grade. You don’t participate, you don’t get the points. End of story. And that’s hard.
At first the professors let it slide, and if I at least showed up to class, I got the points. But then it turned into having to talk in class. And then at least raising my hand once in class. And then to 15% of my final grade.
I was terrified. I didn’t want to go back to being the teacher’s pet or being interrupted by my peers. I didn’t want to deal with the fact that maybe my comment wouldn’t be correct or I wouldn’t be able to say it right and I would sound stupid. So I didn’t raise my hand and I didn’t speak. I knew it would affect my grade but I got good grades on essays and assignments so it was always fine.
And then came my professor’s office hours.
I avoid office hours like the plague. As a college student you hear that you should always go to office hours because it helps the professors get to know you, you’ll probably get a better grade because of it, etc., etc.
Going into a professor’s office is scary. You don’t know what the dynamic will be and how awkward it will be once you’re one on one, and you have to hold a conversation with someone that more than likely has a doctorate. In my case, a doctorate in English. So words are important. But this time, there was no way out.
I had to go in for a consultation for an annotated bibliography and to get the grade for my midterm. I went in nervous. I had stayed up late working on my bibliography and was worried for my conversation with my professor. Participation was a large part of my final grade in his class, and I never spoke so I knew it was going to come up during our consult. I have a high level of respect for this professor and receiving a bad grade from him would have hurt.
So the consultation began. I sat while he graded my bibliography, preparing for the penultimate question to arise. He finished grading, handed me back my midterm, and then handed me my annotated bibliography. Both received an A. He proceeded to tell me I was a good writer and that I was obviously reading, so why didn’t I participate in class?
And the tears came before I even knew they were there. There was no way of stopping them, and I didn’t know how. He grabbed me a tissue while I choked back sobs and tried to answer his question.
I didn’t feel my voice was important. Other people felt like they had to speak and I wasn’t one of those people. To be honest I’m not really sure any of those words came out, but he was kind enough to nod his head and implore if I really was okay. I promised that I was and I left his office hours feeling defeated. I couldn’t even hold an intelligent conversation with him because I had been reduced to tears.
A couple of days later, once I calmed myself down, I sent him an email. I tried to articulate what I had blubbered in his office and explain how thankful I had been for his kindness.
Maybe it was just the intensity of the week with multiple papers due and research paper proposals on my brain, but a few lines in his response floored me.
“No matter what you do with your degree, the world is a better place when smart, well-read, and prepared people speak openly and share their ideas and perspectives about any given issue. Judging from your exam and after chatting with you, I think you are that kind of person. In other words, your voice is necessary and important.”
I cried while at work. I’m pretty sure my coworkers thought I was crazy, but I’m not positive I had ever had someone other than friends and family validate that my words were in fact important.
Even now it’s hard for me to comprehend that someone could think that. The young girl that was pushed back for voicing her opinion was once again being told that it was okay to be smart. Okay to say what she was thinking even if it was wrong.
I know I’m going to be thankful for my professor’s response for a long time to come. It may not change things immediately, but it will lead to growth.
It’s still going to be hard for me to raise my hand in a classroom. That fear of being judged or wrong is always going to be there.
But I’m slowly starting to realize again that my voice IS important.
I think that’s the reason I may have decided on teaching. Not because I want to stand in front of a classroom and have kids listen to me because they don’t have a choice; I want to make sure each and every one of those kids knows without a doubt that their voice is important.
I know that reaching all of them may be impossible, but if I can reach that one girl in the back of the room that was starting to think that maybe she should just keep her hand down, then it will have been worth it.