Your voice matters. My voice matters.

So why is it so hard for us to speak up?

I’m in line at the airport. My carrier is Southwest. This means we all have to line up, in a rough approximation of order, at the gate. This also means we have to afford one another some measure of confidence that no one will try and game the system and sneak into the 1–5 slot even though they are holding number 27.

I can see that the woman in front of me has a boarding number much lower than the group she is standing behind. In front of her stretches a wall of man-spreading dudes laughing about “SPORTS!”.

They are taking up ALL the room.

She is afraid to ask for passage. I watch her tiptoe around, looking for a crack through which she might squeeze… She sighs. She raises a shoulder, she rubs her neck. I ask her if she needs to get through. She says “I’m #11, so…”

She can’t even tell me “Yes. Yes, I need to get in front of these jokers, but they refuse to notice my largely silent, but growing, agitation and let me through.”

Her urge to pass by unnoticed is battling against her desire to board the plane in the order she’s supposed to. It’s a battle I often fight myself.

I clear my throat:

“Hey, guys, this person is trying to get through…”

The guys make room. They continue their conversation over her head as she passes by, but they make room.The woman throws a relieved “Thank you” over her shoulder at me, and moves forward.

Photo by zachrie friesen on Unsplash

It’s 2012. I’m teaching a College Success Skills course. We are discussing the importance of strong writing skills. A lot of my students seem apathetic. They know it’s important to be able to write well enough to pass their classes, but beyond that, they’re largely indifferent.

Then Larry raises his hand.

Larry is a non-traditional student. He’s a vet. He’s older than most of the students in class. He’s also got a healthy sense of humor and maintains an unrelentingly positive outlook. The other students listen to him.

“It’s important. It’s SO important, because, well — I’m going to tell a story why it’s important. One time, my friend, he got a box of bad Twinkies. I didn’t even know Twinkies could go bad, but my friend, he got some. So he wrote this letter, see? To Hostess. He told them all about how disappointed he was that his Twinkies was bad. And Hostess, man, they mailed him back a whole case of Twinkies, plus some coupons for more Twinkies when they was all gone!”

The class laughs. They are totally with him.

“If I got that box of bad Twinkies, man, I wouldn’t have been able to write no letter because my writing is so bad. My friend though, he wrote a real good letter, and he got a whole bunch of Twinkies. If that happened to me, all I’d have is a bad box of Twinkies.”

The class takes this in, and I practically jump for joy at the real-world implications of Larry’s tale.

“YES!” I almost yell. “Strong writing skills don’t just help you pass your classes- they help you communicate with the world at large! That’s what we’re talking about here — being heard! Being able to MAKE yourself heard. Being able to GET YOUR TWINKIES!”

The class laughs. Larry nods. I lock this story into my memory and tell it again, and again, in classes to come.

I’m teaching Public Speaking.

My students come from rural, primarily low-income households. A lot of them struggle. But they’re here and (most of them) are doing the work. I love hearing them report on their career plans. A lot of them are first generation college students. As a first-gen college grad myself, I am with them!

I’m not a traditional choice for this campus. It’s a conservative town and I’m anything by shy about my progressive values. But they’re low on adjuncts, and I never bring my politics into the classroom. Most of the time this doesn’t matter, but we’re entering into Persuasive speech territory, and I brace myself for a wild week. The only subject I’ve disallowed is the pro-life/pro-choice vortex of doom. Otherwise, I do not dictate what students can/cannot talk about.

The speeches are, as always, all over the place. Some are awesome, some are bizarre. Some are surprisingly controversial (Who knew so many people would take affront to being told Disney is “The Devil”?) Some of my students back their arguments up with well-researched facts, and I give them high marks. Some indulge in logical fallacy, and I want to throw erasers at them until they learn their lesson.

It doesn’t matter if I agree with their thesis — that’s not my job. I’m here to help them figure out how to give voice to the things they believe in.

At the end of the week, I tell everyone how proud I am that they stood in front of their peers and defended their positions. That it’s no small thing to use our voice in pursuit of persuading others to believe as we do. That success lies NOT in winning arguments, but in being confident and informed enough to wade into the debate to begin with.

Most of them nod along, eager to be done with Persuasive speeches so they can move on to Demonstrative speeches where someone will make cupcakes.

It’s always everyone’s favorite speech of the semester.

Photo by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

I wasn’t always comfortable using my voice.

I was a very shy human during my formative years. Somewhere during my development, however, I decided I belonged in The Theatre, which meant I had to conquer this quiet timidity I’d been born with. I’ve been mostly successful on that front.

Mostly.

But I’m still an introvert.

I still wrestle with my right to be heard. Usually it’s the little, unimportant stuff that I get hung up on: asking for a refill, asking where the bathroom is… really simple asks that shouldn’t intimidate me, but somehow they do. I’m an actor. I’m a professor. I’ve presented at international conferences… I use my voice all the time, and I’m not afraid to speak up in public about any number of things.

It’s as though I go into this totally bizarre spiral of learned feminine politeness.

It’s weird, and something I continue to battle — this desire to have my wants intuited so that I don’t have to actually ask. Because asking opens the door to rejection, and rejection is…

Well, it’s never as terrible as you think it will be, but it holds power over us just the same, doesn’t it?

I have gotten much better at owning my wants (the big and the little), and I hardly feel like I must apologize for them anymore (because that’s just crazy!). And yet, this pattern of being afraid to talk about myself and my desires at full volume will probably continue to be something I fight because even though I can dress myself in confidence, it’s not something I wear full-time.

Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

I tell this to my students.

I tell them that sometimes the bravery of speaking up is small and goes by completely unnoticed. I explain that sometimes the act of speaking up has ramifications beyond yourself and grander than you can ever imagine. The thing that remains the same is your declaration that your voice counts, either way.

Some people would rather order their steak well-done, at full volume, while naked, then have to give a speech in front of a crowd of thousands. Some of us can talk to the crowd, but become tongue tied asking our aunt to pass the ketchup.

“The thing to do,” I tell my students, “is to turn up your volume a little bit at a time, until the world has no choice but to listen.”

It’s good advice.

Thinking thoughts, writing them down… trying not to scream in the interim. Also: Playwright. Professor. Mom. Wife. Cat-Servant. Follow @LadyPlaywright

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