Of Speaking and Solitary Pursuits: Literacy in the Confidence of Self-Expression
by Abbey Tan
“Lift up your lovely heads and look,
As wind turns clouds into a picture book”
~Mary O’Neill, “Wind Pictures”
I believe I can talk now.
As a child, I had selective mutism, an uncommon social anxiety disorder in which I went weeks without uttering a single word at school. When I first saw the title of a guidebook on my parents’ nightstand, my six-year-old self confused the word “mutism” for “mutant” and envisioned baleful, humanoid phantoms hovering over me. In retrospect, I realize fighting such ghosts would have been significantly easier than overcoming my overwhelming shyness. Unlike reading, writing, or even categorizing near-homophones, my literacy in confident communication did not come readily.
Home was a sanctuary. It was an expanse of imagination nestled within brick-and-vinyl siding on the meandering streets of suburban Ohio. At home, I was animated and exuberant, chattering about the latest book I was reading or cheerfully singing along to snippets of Dora the Explorer. I’d glibly converse with my grandmother in Mandarin, relishing the sweet familiarity of the ambrosial tones. I’d bicker with my brother during chaotic sessions of “Purple Island,” a game we’d play in which we’d sweep all the plastic dinosaurs and Hot Wheels cars from their respective shelves and construct a bustling inter-epochal metropolis on the dining room carpet. At home, I developed fluency in numerous literacies. Arguing, singing Chinese nursery rhymes, creating new worlds –– I embraced them all with innocent effervescence.
I acquired further skills at school: formal grammar, mathematics, and the like. But instead of accepting these newfound literacies with carefree gaiety, as I did at home, I tucked them away in the carefully subdued dwelling of my psyche. At school, I set subconscious rules for myself. No laughing. No smiling. And of course, no speaking. I forbid myself from these wonderful human expressions and would be mortified to the point of tears if anyone, adults especially, noticed a slip in my blank-faced façade. As Richard Rodriguez described, I was “careful to keep separate the two very different worlds of my day” (47). I was a strict disciplinarian, an impassive observer, a small and dark-eyed girl peering from the inconspicuous fringes of the classroom.
My parents quickly discovered something was wrong. “She’s very bright, but she just needs to come out of her shell,” I remember my second-grade teacher saying at the dreaded faculty-parent conference. It was a disorienting amalgamation of worlds –– of home and school, Mama and Mrs., comfort and palpitating survival. Under the beckoning beam of their too-warm smiles, I read excerpts of various compositions I’d written in class. My voice, thin and wavering, initially shocked me with its strange tone. I felt like an imposter. An anonymous guest at a shameful masquerade. I wore a smothering mask and spoke with a voice that neither my parents nor teacher (nor even myself) recognized.
Of course, my literacy development did not simply comprise talking. After all, my quietness stemmed not from a mechanical block but a mental one. In the fast-paced era of modern civilization, oracy remains one of the most basic, fundamental means of communication. For me, it would be a stepping point from which I could further develop a more complex literacy in assured self-expression. But first, I had to get there.
There is a slight lapse in my memory, but I remember the poems coming soon afterwards. They were gentle, lighthearted verses designed to capture the fancies of curious schoolchildren. We received two per week, slipping them into sleek Poetry Folders. Highlighting vocabulary words and underlining rhyme schemes were well and all, but then my teacher proclaimed we’d get a chance to recite them. If you memorize and recite one without more than three mistakes, she explained, you’ll earn a sticker.
I was terrified. But the incentive was tantalizing. My dad, all too eager to acquaint his timid daughter to the splendor of discourse, pounced on the idea.
Every weekend, my father and I practiced. He always encouraged me to pick the longer of the two poems (some over ten stanzas!), and unlike the teacher, he didn’t permit three mistakes. He expected none. On those drizzling grey afternoons, Papa would sit on his faded rocking chair and I’d pace in front of him, repeating over and over again the fiddly complexities of the verse, searching for a rhythm and pattern in the undulating cadence. The bits of soft that break and fall away, air-borne mushrooms with undersides of grey…
I cherished those silvery slips of adhesive. Decorating the cover of my folder, each sticker was a glittering badge –– a reminder that I had spoken in front of the entire class and could very much do so again. My literacy journey did not culminate here, though, in a glorious huzzah. By then, I knew I was capable of speaking. But I simply preferred not to. There was still a disconnect between my home self and school self, and my speech remained tinged with a strained awkwardness borne of persisting self-consciousness.
After all, why did I have to talk? I much preferred to devote my time to solitary pursuits. The poems –– the reading, rhymes, and repetition –– incited in me an obsessive love of the English language. In the serene, sun-flooded respite of my bedroom, I scrawled stories, invented characters, and plotted maps of lands only accessible by imagination. I was a master of my “actors and plot, history and presence, social construction and individual agency” (Chang 197). Within smudged pages, I had the freedom to transfigure personas. I conjured the creativity from my early childhood days and combined it with the exhilarating design of diction and syntax. Over the next several years, I was a historian who chronicled her own speck of history. I was a composer, extending my passion for poetry into the kaleidoscopic landscape of music notes and time signatures. I was even an alphabet connoisseur who created lists of words and their respective “flavors,” from the bright, citrus-gelatin tang of “mountain” to the mealy saltiness of “tornado.” Like Amy Tan, I was enthralled with “the power of language — the way it [could] evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth” (76). Yet, I rarely used it to communicate with others. Sometimes, I’d long to share my exquisite findings with my classmates, but insecurity held me back; my reticence, I reasoned, was too ingrained in my outward identity to change. Like a hatchling with wings too weak to fly, I folded inwards and upon myself, deeper into the lonely realm of introspection and tattered spiral notebooks.
Looking back, I don’t believe my timidness was “cured” in one epiphanic moment. The poem recitations served as a catalyst for the physical act of talking; my realization that language was meant to communicate developed over the course of many minute, day-to-day interactions. A shared joke here, a quick remark on a doodle there. In seventh grade, I even brought my violin to class to demonstrate the mellifluous magnificence of the D major scale. One of the most profound events, however, in the development of my literacy of self-expression, occurred during my senior year of high school.
As president of my school’s National Honor Society chapter, I was informed that I’d have to introduce our faculty speaker and speak at the annual induction ceremony for new members. “The topic is ‘leadership,’” the organization advisor told me. Fair enough. I could give a speech, yes, and while it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world to do, it was manageable –– a distant echo from the silent, melancholy days of elementary school. I brainstormed ideas on the assigned theme and wrote a tidy draft. Revisions, rewriting, rehearsing in front of a mirror…done. Unlike the poems I memorized in second grade, however, my NHS speech felt more genuine and relaxed in its presentation. This time, there was no external motivation of stickers; I simply wanted to share my thoughts on effective guidance and how different leadership roles impacted me. As I practiced, I actually noticed myself reflecting on the meaning of the words I uttered, rather than robotically reciting syllables. Over the following weeks, I grew more excited for the evening of the induction.
One day before the ceremony, however, my advisor informed me that our chemistry teacher, whom we had voted to speak beforehand, had fallen ill with complications from chemotherapy. She asked if I could both introduce him and read his speech, and after a brief bout of trepidation, I agreed. In that chaotic, terrible moment, I understood that I had to confidently use my position –– my mind, beliefs, and abilities –– to help my beloved teacher. Any residual qualms about my speech were quickly dispelled in a desperate attempt to show him our school’s support. With the help of my NHS advisor, I crafted a heartfelt address honoring my teacher and celebrating all the time and care he had given to our students over the years. I wanted to do more, though. For me, spoken words still felt inadequate. I refused to believe I was really “literate” with them until recently, and I didn’t want to only use them at a time like this. Thus, I employed another literacy of mine, art, and combined it with speaking in order to reach out to my teacher in a way I thought was true. The night passed in a swirl of joy and solemnity, formal speeches and periodic table jokes, and when my chemistry teacher returned to school a few months later after successful treatment, he thanked us all with tears in his eyes.
Language can be studied and savored, whether that be concocting a bit of poetry or compiling a list of favorite words. Language can also be pondered and explored, reaching beyond modern alphabetical text towards the lingual intricacies of notes, numbers, and even visual art. But ultimately, at its most basic, primal form, language should be used to connect with others. All around the world, from the birth of civilization to the present, people use their countless literacies to communicate with others. An expert sculptor can chisel pain and longing into an inscrutable slab of marble and awe viewers with its emotion. A physics teacher can convey the natural workings of the Universe through complex mathematical formulas to a classroom of sleepy teenagers. Malcolm X used the fiery power of oration to relay the struggles and indomitable spirit of Black people. All of us, in some way or another, are literate in a language (oftentimes more than one!), and all of us have the responsibility to share our literacies with others. When I was younger, I was thrilled with the concept of language, and I was literate in a few of its many forms — writing, drawing, playing musical instruments, etc. As I grew older and more self-assured, however, I began to realize that language couldn’t simply exist within one’s mind. No matter how literate I was in any language, I could never truly experience it unless I shared it with others. For in the end, literacy means taking an idea, a dream, a skill one possesses and using it as a vehicle to express the extraordinary nuances of the human spirit.
And in my gradual recognition of the true purpose of language, I began to cultivate a new literacy: the literacy of confident self-expression and communication. It was one that stemmed from all my other literacies and one that’d come to hold the most meaning. The poems taught me how to speak; my peers, parents, and teachers taught me why. Now I know why. We, as individuals, cannot cower behind masks of self-doubt. We carry the potential to use our literacies in the far reaches of society to collaborate, converse, and contribute to the world.
For we can talk now.
Chang, A. (2014). Identity production in figured worlds: How some multiracial students become racial Atravesados/as. The Urban Review, 46(1), 25-46.
O’Neill, Mary Le Duc, and James Barkley. Winds. Doubleday and Co., 1970.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger Of Memory: The Education Of Richard Rodriguez : An Autobiography. Toronto : Bantam Books, 1983, c1982.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” [Threepenny Review 1990; 1989.] The McGraw-Hill Reader: Issues across the Disciplines. Ed. Gilbert H. Muller. 11th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 76-81.
X, Malcolm. “Learning to Read.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology. Ed. Samuel Cohen. New. York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 257-266.
Lin Abigail (“Abbey”) Tan is a second-year Medical Sciences student at the University of Cincinnati. She is interested in biomedical research, science education, classical music, and written literature, and is especially thrilled when these realms intersect. This piece was written for her Honors English Composition class under the excellent guidance of her professor, Dr. Gary Vaughn. “Of Speaking and Solitary Pursuits” is Abbey’s first published essay, and she thanks Queen City Writers for the opportunity.