the voice in the crowd

I have no voice.

I think of the irony of this statement; the once extremely shy girl who rarely spoke or looked people in the eye. Back then I wished I had been a fly sitting unobtrusively on a wall; observing the world around me.  Silence is my sanctuary.  It is welcoming.  Comforting…

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…but annoying when your primary means of communicating is verbal.  Over the years I had been encouraged to come out-of-my-shell; to advocate for myself.  These thoughts reverberated in my mind amidst the raucous yells in a crowded high school gymnasium.  I hadn’t realized the cell phone I held in my hand was ringing until I felt the vibration.  My eyes alighted on the teenagers standing tall in bleachers, screaming at the top of their lungs. The parents surrounding me were also cheering and I could hear the air push through my vocal chords but no sounds came out.  Phone in-palm, I did fist pumps instead.  It was in that moment, in the loud gym, that I realized how much I took my voice for granted.

There are so many places today where women cannot speak.  Cultures where women’s destinies lie in the hands of others; usually under heavy handed males and uncompromising circumstances.  I take for granted that my voice can be heard; that the words I write are granted in our free society.  I have the right to an opinion and with social media and the world wide web; they have the capability to be seen.  What of those who have none of these things: computers, cell phones, IP addresses; the large areas of third world countries and in rural parts of our first world own?  The book, The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi weighs on my mind.

I had sat in a meeting Thursday night and when I spoke, my voice came out as a squeak.  The dry cough that plagued my family had taken over my larynx and everyone leaned in to hear what I was attempting to say.  As a listening tactic at home, I lower my voice when I address my sons with something important.  Currently the noise level of my home is non-existent; my family dampening the volume and listening to discern where I am when they address me.  It is comical!

It had been easy as a thirteen year old to hide behind my girlfriends as they chattered away.  If ever I needed to speak, my friends would speak for me.  It was only in high school that I stood alone; dispersed in different classes and paths.  It was in these years that I discovered the squeaky wheel got the oil and if I didn’t discover my own voice, quickly, that I would rapidly be left behind amongst my more assertive and vocal classmates.  Whomever said grades and scores speak louder than words should qualify that statement.  You need to be able to put your actions where your mouth is.  You can be intelligent, innovative and creative (Steve Wozniak) but if you can’t get along with people or market what you do (Steve Jobs), what good does that do you?  You have to balance both of these traits to effectively maneuver the world around us.

Currently this discussion pertains to our teenager and  I understand now WHY I chose to forget about my high school years.  These are the issues I never wanted to confront, to sweep under the rug.  It is during these tumultuous years where the growth pains, failures and triumphs mark the person we were in that moment.  The acne and body changes, the clothes I couldn’t afford to wear, the trips or experiences I never had.   It is only when we are away from the intense scrutiny of popularity, athletic or academic rankings that we can figure out what truly defines a person.  Hard work.  Experience.  Social skills.  Clearly I understood the ethos of hard work and I volunteered in various clubs and activities to gain experience.  But for social skills, I was on my own.

It was in another high school gym that I was forced to find my voice.  Activities such as band allowed me to perform with a large number of people.  When chosen for a songleading squad I quaked in fear, cursing the fates.  I had thought I could blend with the girls in performing dance routines but we also had  to project our voices and cheer.  Loud.  This was not the fit for me.  I attempted to hide behind the other girls but our instructor had made it clear.  We were the ones to generate spirited yells; we had to embody these words with confidence.  Our coach would stand near me to make sure she could hear my voice as I nervously quivered.  I’d never failed anything at this point in my life.  I couldn’t fail at this.

Today my sons hear me.   I now can project my voice very loud and clear.  Across a crowded football stadium my eldest heard me shout from the top row as his marching band took the field in competition.  My middle son heard me underwater as he would  flip turn during swim meets.  In soccer, my youngest heard my whoop for joy as he blocked a shot amongst a group of defenders.  In a crowded room of adults my husband can easily find me.  From those gym drills emerged my ability to communicate, the voice which asserts my thoughts and questions the status quo.  My heart still pitter-patters before I have to publicly speak but once I begin, I am full-throttle and had to learn to wrap things up in a timely manner.   Yesterday in the crowded gym I wanted to cheer and shout with throngs of people present.  I wanted my voice back!

My ability to speak with volume, though, was not the impetus that gave me my words.  In the end it is the CONTENT of grammatical phrases and punctuation that allowed me to mean what I say and say what I mean.  It was my English teacher, who also was the debate team coach, who made this clear.  Speaking loud didn’t mean anything if there was no true meaning in what you were shouting.  You needed literature to back the words up; the wealth of information from acquired knowledge.  One needed to be well read and ultimately, the ability to be an effective speaker came down to one thing.

BOOKS.

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Initially I thought this teacher meant the classics of literature.  But no.  He meant anything and everything you could feast your eyes upon.  Science fiction, trashy magazines, graphs in the Wall Street Journal, dictionaries.  I internalized his words and my quiet, introverted personality would switch between Harlequin romance novels and any of the above.  My vocabulary grew and my thirst for knowledge exponentially grew with it.  Alongside my globe were Michener’s Hawaii, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and even my Harlequin romance novels.  All had a part of the choices made in my life and to this day I credit my widened perspective to these particular books.  I’ve seen this derivation of Descartes’ famous quote which embodies the person I have become.

I read therefore I am.

So, voiceless and tired, I sat and completed reading the book that I hope will bring me some parenting perspective as I maneuver through this next phase of parenting a teen: college mania.  Amongst my girlfriends I see the stress and toll the admission process has placed upon them.  I read articles of Palo Alto parents keeping watch along train tracks for suicidal teens in the month of April when acceptance and rejection letters arrive in the mail or email (gasp!)  Frank Bruni’s, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania shed some light on what lies ahead and I thought of this as the principal read the long list of college acceptances from various seniors at our high school.  When the valedictorian and salutatorians were announced I was surprised to note that they were not the kids proudly wearing their Harvard or Yale shirts.  And I cried alongside the surprised and proud parents who claimed these seniors.  The Ivy schools were well represented in the “Top Ten” kids but so were other state and small private institutions.  My eyes were opened as I fist-pumped for their accomplishments.  Just WOW.

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I got that same feeling as I sat in an upper balcony of the large auditorium. I am a fan of writer Malcolm Gladwell; known for his books The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers & his current book David & Goliath.  When I saw he was being interviewed at the LA Times Festival of Books I went online and was able to secure two tickets to this engagement.  My first exposure to published authors began at age eleven; chosen to participate in a writer’s workshop at a university one and a half hours from my childhood home.  My GATE advisor took it upon herself to drive me there, daily, the entire week.  I had been in awe and intimidated.  I sat silently as authors shared what inspired them; my voice still hidden deep within.   I am just coming to the realization of how many adults mentored me and how grateful I am for their tutelage.  The years I chose to forget were the ones that indelibly shaped me.  The high school counselor, the cheerleading coach, the GATE advisor.  The death of my father.  The books allowed me to expand my mind beyond my claustrophobic four walls.  They were my ticket to the world beyond.  The books helped me build my vocabulary, find my words and, with the cheerleading coach, finally say them loud and clear.

For the Malcolm Gladwell conversation I sat in the same auditorium of my very first college class.  Biology 101.  All pre-meds and science majors were required to take this course their freshman year which weeded out the wheat from the chaff.  At 8 AM MWF I sat in this darkened lecture hall frantically taking notes in the front rows.  It is in the years between, then and now, that I realized I had narrowed my scope.  Hindsight brings perspective and where my true passions lay were in the globes and maps and demographics.  I loved statistics and had, instead, narrowed my choices to medicine.  It was after completing my one year in a medical school did I realize this was not the career path for me; much to the shock of my family and friends.

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On the way home from the Festival of Books the eldest re-initiated the conversation from two weeks before.  While I sat listening to Gladwell my husband, best friend and his wife set out to show our children the various places they hung out in our years of college here.  They toured science and engineering quads, peered into computer labs,  Heisman trophies and film school buildings.  The kids listened intently as the three of them shared stories of late nights studying or socializing.  They heard Jeff Kinney, the creator of the Diary of A Wimpy Kid books and cartoons, recount how his life brought him to his present occupation.  The books and authors were everywhere as they toured the campus for almost two hours.  The stats ring true: kids whose parents have gone to college will most likely take the same route.  I tell my son to open his mind and widen his perspective.  We need to open these doors to all kids in diverse socio- and economic circumstances.  Books can be that portal to bridge the gap to get them there.

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It takes almost twenty four hours for the last three days to really sink in.  The rally.  The friends.  The festival.  I had thought excessive pride and hubris was the trait I despised the most in people.  But as I processed the conversations over the past few days I realized I have been wrong.  Narrow-mindedness is the crux that I am least tolerant and empathetic; the parachute that leaves me drifting and bound.  In cutting the ties to this trait, I can explore outside my boundaries to the great outdoors and beyond.

I am expanding horizons. 

The world is my oyster.  I want my son to know this as he enters the cogwheel of these stressful high school years.  To not limit himself to the rules and boundaries; the safe paths people doggedly tread to get to the end destination.  I want him to walk his journey and trail blaze his own path; to not follow my own, or his father’s or his peers’.  I strive to impress this upon each of my children because they are all unique and their strengths and weaknesses are different.  It is my job, as a parent, to foster broader horizons and perspectives, to encourage the pursuit of knowledge and to allow my kids to explore their passions whether it be books, music, sports or pop culture.

I ponder if the computer and internet are the books of my children’s generation; opening boundaries to the web world wide.  May they enjoy what they read.  To  read their own words.  To passionately pursue what they enjoy for their own life paths.

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May you continue to read, forever and always.  Find your voice.  Step outside the box.

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