I was 5 years old when I figured out how powerful words could be.
My brother and I were seated on a wooden bench outside a courtroom while my parents and their lawyers battled over custody inside. We were dressed up, and our mother had packed us a small bag of toys which neither of us touched. Several people walked by glaring out of the corners of their eyes but no one stopped. A woman came out of the courtroom wearing a navy blue blazer, white button up blouse, and pencil skirt. She had dark wavy hair and blue eyes. I remember those eyes because she looked at me with such sadness and while by that point, I was used to adults looking at me in that way, but it had always come from a family member, not from a stranger. She knelt down to where my brother and I sat and introduced herself. “My name is Kathy. What are your names?” Her voice echoed in an otherwise silent lobby. My brother, 3 years my senior, happily piped up, “I’m James and this is my little sister! Her name is Jessica. She’s shy.”
“Hi James. It’s nice to meet you,” she said to my brother. Then Kathy looked at me. “Your name is Jessica?” she asked me.
I wasn’t always that quiet, not even around people I didn’t know.
My earliest memories of my parents were of them fighting. I recall lamps smashing and the tiny apartment my dad moved into. Those fragments lack order in my mind and I feel awkward talking to family about them. I remember the louder their voices became, the softer mine got. At one point, my brother mentioned that our parents never used to fight like that until I was born so I started to take some responsibility for it. In the end, I began to slip into an anxious pit of shyness that would take me nearly two decades to crawl out of.
When Kathy asked me how I was feeling, I looked straight into her eyes but didn’t speak. It felt like a lump had developed in my throat and that if I were to talk, my voice would be so loud that the police flanking the doors might hear. I was afraid that by saying one word, everything else would tumble out and maybe someone would take one of my parents away from me. I had no idea then that despite this logic, I would be without at least one of them in a large way from then on and for the rest of my life, but there in that court lobby, I swore by the silence I would keep for the better part of the next two decades.
Kathy dug into her purse and pulled out a pen and a small notebook. “Can you write?” she asked me.
I cracked a smile.
I was in Kindergarten and, by that point, could write my name and a few 3-letter words. Writing was my favorite time of day, next to arts and crafts.
She passed me the pen and notebook. “Can you write your name and how you’re feeling?”
Up until that moment, I was only given instructions, most of which involved not speaking to my father, which I thought was odd. I still held fast to the belief that all adults were right and kids should listen to them. Given that all the things I was told to do caused me some type of sadness, I was starting to get a little skeptical, but I complied anyway because I for some strange reason, I figured that if I was really good, it would all stop.
I remember sitting on Santa’s lap at a mall when I was 4. When he asked what I wanted for Christmas, I said, “For Mommy and Daddy to stop fighting.” After seeing the uncomfortable look in his eyes, I quickly added, “… and an art easel.” I got the easel but it didn’t stop the battle at home.
I would crawl into my closet with all my stuffed animals, a flashlight, a few pieces of construction paper and crayons. There, I would draw out elaborate stories as a distraction from all the noise. My closet muffled out a lot of the yelling and the garments draping overhead made me feel safe. Mrs. Hartnett, my teacher, said that books and stories could take you to faraway places without leaving your house. For that reason, I was jealous of my 8 year old brother who could read, but I figured if I couldn’t read a story, I would make my own in pictures. I didn’t care that only I understood them. I needed those stick figures just as much as I needed my Sleepy Time Care Bear, my knitted blanket, that closet, and the coats and dresses overhead.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!” my brother interjected, getting bored in his seat before finally succumbing to the bag of toys next to us.
Something changed in me the moment that pen touched the paper. Feeling the tread of my shaky hands create something I wasn’t sure I understood yet made me able to communicate without talking, but which people could still understand and respond to. In getting those three words out, I felt an odd sense of empowerment. Finally, I was able to speak up. Finally, my little voice could be heard. Kathy read my words and looked at me. Her eyes reminded me of the ocean. My favorite place was the beach. “You’re very sad, Jessica?” she asked me.
I took the pen and notebook back from her. “YES” I wrote in those same bold letters. I held up the notebook to cover my face so she couldn’t see me start to cry. When she heard my sniffles she took the notebook down and gave me a hug, and I continued to cry for what felt like a really long time.
I was still in Kathy’s arms when the courtroom doors burst open and my mother walked out with a slew of other people wearing dark suits. “James! Jessica! Come here right now!” she ordered. I held onto Kathy for a moment longer. “JESSICA!” my mother screamed, “NOW!” I pulled away and looked into Kathy’s eyes one last time.
That would be the last time in years anyone would ask me how I was feeling. It would be the last time I would feel safe for a bit longer than that. As my small legs moved to keep up with my mother’s pace, she yanked the collar of my dress motioning me to look up at her.
“What did I tell you about not talking to strangers?”
I would be one of the first kids in my class to learn to read, and the first to be able to write complete sentences. I would struggle with spelling, but that didn’t stop me from writing. I would learn how to use paper to communicate. I would learn how to substitute a pen and a keyboard for my actual voice. I wrote every day about everything, from all the toxicity in my home life to friends that were somehow able to attach themselves to a painfully shy girl. In high school, I would hardly participate in class discussions but my teachers would claim that my papers were nothing short of extraordinary.
By college, I began to lose some of my inhibition, and met people like me who became creative in the wake of tragedy. I would be inspired by poets like Buddy Wakefield and artists like Frida Kahlo. I would find my own color and embrace my broken little road whose cracked surface I was navigating. And I would write.
God, I would write.
I would write for myself when I was little and confused, and I would write for all the people who were still confused. I would write for the men and women who knew what I knew and felt what I felt. I would write for all the kids who were still shy and lost, as I had been. I would write for my friends who would get annoyed when I felt uncomfortable dictating plans for the evening and for the lovers who couldn’t understand why I had a hard time speaking up.
I would learn to put myself first. I would learn to trust in my own voice. 21 years after that day in the courtroom, I found myself at dive bar on Division in Chicago, downing a PBR and waiting for the open mic to start. I held onto a crumpled piece of paper where I’d written a poem about surviving a turbulent childhood. I was drinking to quell the nerves, but the booze wasn’t helping. I heard my name, and walked up to the stage as the room of surly people in dark coats applauded me. “This is actually my first time reading anything I’ve written, ever,” I began. I nearly jumped at how loud my voice was through the speakers. “This poem is called, ‘I’ve Arrived.’”