hold your tongue

the first crucial instance in which i know i raised my voice for good, in which i attempted to stand up for myself was in third grade, when my mother picked me up from school and asked how my day was and i’d replied that it was fine except i don’t like being in that box. i’ve no memory of this. we were living in natchitoches, louisiana; i don’t have many good memories from there as i’d had no friends and my teacher visibly detested me. there’s the sensation of being excluded, of being set apart, but i’ve no concrete memory of the box or of that conversation with my mother. the teacher had put my desk in an appliance box because she hadn’t wanted me in her classroom; she’d tried to have me placed in special education, and when that failed, she must’ve brought the box to class and put my desk in it and there is where i sat. until i’d found the courage to confess my dislike for the box to my mother. in doing so, my parents addressed the matter with my teacher and learned that i — who was quite capable of telling stories, even then — was telling the truth; they took my older brother and i out of that private catholic school and enrolled us in a public one.

there’s a blue-gray spot on my left cheek, about the size of a freckle. it’s lead from a pencil. graphite. one of my fifth grade classmates jammed one of my perfectly sharpened pencils in my face because he was tired of having to wait on me to finish sharpening my pencils. i had a fistful of them; i wanted to sharpen them before we’d taken our standardized test to determine whether we were placed in honors, level or special education classes the following year — a test that i later learned was a crucial one for me, as my teachers had again recommended i be placed in special education. that test, by the way, got me in honors classes the next year. got me in pauline elliott’s classroom. got me a teacher who praised me and my talents — a beautiful thing, considering i’d had some of the worst teachers in the world in the past two years. anyway, i wanted perfect points. i didn’t want to have to sharpen them during the thing because i didn’t want to distract my peers’ thoughts during the test. i wanted sharp pencils so my bubbles were perfect and would be scored properly. i’d tried to stand up for myself, to say that he should wait his turn. he didn’t like that i’d said so, so he grabbed one of my pencils and jammed it in my left cheek. the next memory i have is sitting in my desk bubbling in my name, being annoyed that there weren’t enough spaces for me to bubble all of it and so i’d had to leave the r off, making my name jennife. i’ve no memory of what happened immediately after he’d hurt me. i’ve no memory of his doing so, really, except that i know he did it — the fucked-up freckle’s there as evidence. the only clear memories i have of that day are standing at the sharpener, knowing which boy it was who’d caused me harm and the bubbles. and thirty-four years later, every time i look in the mirror, my eyes are instantly, subconsciously drawn to that blue-gray dot.

this is the last instance from childhood that i remember standing up for myself.

so i’m not good at that. but i don’t like feeling that i can’t speak my mind. that i can’t say what i think. that one of the qualities i love about myself, my ability to be direct, that i have to mask that and so often with meekness. that if i don’t do so, i’m seen as argumentative, disrespectful, hurtful, bitchy, selfish, thoughtless, insensitive… pick an adjective. if those don’t suit you, feel free to supply your own.

a woman lectured me on empathy today, about how i should be more empathetic. i’ve a vast capacity for empathy. if someone’s hurt, i hurt for them. if my words have been the cause of that pain, then pile on guilt along with the hurt and regret that i’ve said a thing that has offended.

another lectured me a few weeks ago on having respect for others.

here’s the thing… i’m being lectured about respect by someone who has no regard for my thoughts and feelings. i’m being told i lack empathy by someone who clearly hasn’t considered how her words might make me feel. i’m not a patient woman. i’ve little tolerance for hypocrisy. i’ve no tolerance whatsoever for others forcing their beliefs upon me.

yall, the only folks who have the right to lecture me are my mama and my papa. that’s it. they’re the only ones whose nagging and request for behavioral change i must heed. they’re pretty proud of the woman i’ve become, so they don’t lecture me all that often.

i’ve learned to pick my battles. the greatest one i fight, the one whose victory is most important to me, is the one against the darker aspects of my character — the depression that’s plagued me since i was eight, the physical challenges that have plagued me since birth. i’ve learned to extract myself from situations that are unpleasant.

in eighth grade, i couldn’t do the latter. i was sitting on a row of tires on the football field during lunch break. the day was gorgeous: bright and blue and beautiful. my mood was not: i sat out there wishing a lightning bolt could somehow magically appear and strike me dead because i’d had enough of all the bullshit. the physical and mental challenges i faced were just too great right then, or so it seemed, for my feeble body and brain to handle. i prayed for the bolt. i cried because i knew it wouldn’t come, that the request was utterly ridiculous. and of course, a group of the most popular kids in school chose that moment to exit the cafeteria, stroll across the football field and form a semi-circle before me, standing so close that i could not rise, could not turn and walk away. they looked down upon me and slung their insults at me, and i sat there, helpless — a fragile runt of a girl battling life from within and without and losing on both fronts. there was such rage within me, such hate for their behavior, for them but i could not, would not unleash it upon them.

i know i’ve mentioned these incidences before. they are defining moments for me. they are the times when i know i should’ve shown my strength and found the right words but didn’t. they are the reasons i strive to say something now. they’re the reasons i prefer to speak plainly whenever possible.

i’ve grown weary of the rage. i’ve grown tired of not being able to say what i think.

sure i could be more tactful. sure i should do a better job of considering the repercussions of my words before i use them. but if i’ve been asked my opinion, if i’ve been asked to voice my concerns, i’m going to do so and in as succinct a fashion as i can. i don’t like to mince words. i don’t like to be politically correct, and i’ve been lectured for that, as well. i shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for having articulated my thoughts, especially when others have asked for the opinion.

it’s taken me thirty years to find my voice. i’ll be damned if i stop using it. that said, my moral, political and religious beliefs are my own; i don’t generally feel the need to voice them.

writers join critique groups for the betterment of their craft. we are sensitive souls. we’re supposed to go into those groups prepared to hear criticism and take what we need from what’s offered to make our stories better. we’re supposed to be able to handle it when others offer their opinions. these two instances i’ve referenced — the ones about empathy and respect — both involved other writers.

i’d said i choose the battles i fight. i’ve not been terribly fond of my facebook and twitter feeds in the past year or so because of the sentiments expressed there. but here’s the thing: those are my friends, for the most part, or fellow bloggers about whom i’ve chosen to care. they can say what they think. god love’m for it. i don’t have to. i don’t have to engage. very often i don’t, mostly because i don’t want to lose a friend just because his or her beliefs, whatever they may be, differ from mine. they say what they think, and the less i like it, the faster i scroll past it. that’s how i’ve chosen to play that. that is the best way i know to respect them, to extract myself from a potentially unpleasant entanglement.

it’s so much easier to do that than it is to engage in actual conversation with those i call friends who aren’t being friendly.

i used to pray, desperately, for friends. for a group of girls i could call my allies. and finally, the good lord has seen fit to give me a handful of them, some of whom i love more than others, but i’m sure that’s normal. i hadn’t realized just how much of a pain in the ass it can be having friends and maintaining those friendships. now i have them… now i have what i thought was becoming a pretty healthy social life, but it’s so fucking exhausting, this walking on coals. if that’s what friendship really is, then i don’t know that i want a part of that. if my friends are implying that i should hold my tongue, how can i call them friends?

on a happier note, when i asked a friend this evening what she liked best about me, her response: that you’re genuine. that was exactly what i needed to hear right then. :]

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