I was four years old when I realized I wasn’t like the other children in my preschool class. While they chatted away in the classroom and sang the ABC’s at the top of their lungs, I would slump to the bottom of my chair and write letters on a piece of paper instead. At recess, the other kids tried to get me to talk. I always remained silent, and they eventually would give up and run off without me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to talk, or that I didn’t want to play, because I did. I wanted so badly to run alongside my peers and laugh and be normal. No, it wasn’t that at all, but I always stood silently watching until it was time to go back inside.
I remember the first time I heard the words “selective mutism”. I was too young to comprehend what it meant, but I instantly felt the sadness and confusion that radiated from my mother as we sat in the office of the child psychologist. I was smart they said, much smarter than most children my age. That, I had proven with my trusty pen and paper. What was probably only an hour at best felt an eternity in my young mind as the doctor asked me question after question and I’d write the answers down. I attribute it to the fact I learned to read at the age of three, and once I figured that out, there was no stopping me. I read like there was no tomorrow and I read everything in sight including the homework my eight year old brother would bring home from school. What’s more is, I actually understood what I was reading. I was learning more and more every minute of everyday. But I wouldn’t speak a word. Not to my peers. Not to my doctor. Not even to my own family.
The doctor suggested ways for my family to help me start talking. Different games, silly songs, bribes of toys and sweets, but I wasn’t interested in any of it. I was content in my tiny, quiet shell. She suggested a physical checkup of my vocal cords. I refused to speak so they put me under. I’m not sure what they did, but the testing showed I was physically capable of talking. I just didn’t want to talk, and why would I need to if I could relay what I needed via pen and paper?
Fast track to age ten. I spent my entire childhood as the quiet girl, “the mute” as some referred to me as. By this point I was making strides in the vocal direction. I was now communicating with my immediate family. Mostly my mother and younger siblings, and I made a neighborhood friend whom I would whisper to from time to time. We became a hit on the playground as kids would ask me questions and I’d whisper into her ear so she could relay my answer. Everyone wanted to hear my voice. Inch by inch, they’d move closer as I whispered until I’d feel their breath on my cheek and I’d stop. I never dared let anyone else hear my sounds.
Then one afternoon while sitting in class, I was called into the office. I was greeted by an entourage of my mother, my teacher, the school counselor, and principal of the school. It was clear to me that my mother had been crying as they quickly informed me that I, the quiet girl that never talked, was disruptive to the classroom. They gave me an ultimatum. I had two weeks to start talking or they were going to transfer me to a special needs school.
The next few days felt like torture for me. The first time my teacher called upon me to answer a question, I froze. I knew the answer. I wanted to speak it, but fear overtook me. I started to write my answer as I had done so many times before. She snatched the paper from my desk and told me to see the principal. Never had I ever been in trouble, and here I was for the first time being scolded by my principal for not talking. This repeated multiple times per day. At times, I would be left alone in the office with the lights off. At one point I dozed off only to awaken to the principal slamming a heavy book onto her desk. She told me I was lazy, selfish, inconsiderate of others; the list goes on. I held back my tears as I tried to understand what was happening. I had only been called sweet and kind previous to this.
After a few days of receiving my punishments, I knew I would break. Fear consumed me. I dreaded being called on. I pulled all my strength together until I could finally muster up the courage to let my voice be heard. It was subtle at first. I walked around my teacher’s desk and whispered into her ear. She seemed pleased enough that I was allowed to stay in the classroom that day. For weeks after, I would whisper into her ear until one day I started whispering out loud for my peers to hear. Surprisingly, it felt great to be heard, but I still wasn’t ready to talk above the whisper.
The summer after fifth grade went by in a blur. I remember feeling a huge amount of anxiety going into grade sixth. I promised my mother I would speak out loud that year, so on the first day of school, when it was my turn for introductions, I stood up and with a shakiness to my voice, introduced myself and spoke about my activities that summer.
The fear and anxiety that had eaten away at me for years gradually dissolved into spoken words. Even now as an adult, loud laughter, jokes with friends, and a newfound love of singing continue to help my confidence grow, and although I’m happy I overcame the muted part of my life, I will never forget the quiet, scared little girl that helped shape me into the woman I am today.