I used to be scared to speak outside of my safe little cul-de-sac. Teachers loved me because I was so “well-behaved” and “attentive,” but in reality I broke a sweat thinking about raising my hand. I doubt I spoke more than a paragraph at school in the entirety of my third-grade year. I’m not sure why I was so afraid; I was too young to really have body image issues or jealousy over other girls’ beauty. I knew I was one of the smartest if not the smartest kid in my grade, possibly my school (we’re talking elementary school here, it’s not like I had much competition). I was relatively confident in myself, so why couldn’t I speak? I guess I was afraid of new people, or messing up in front of new people. I was so anxious to make friends it prevented me from making friends.
In fourth grade I got bullied pretty bad. Girls drew ugly pictures of me on the whiteboard, they called me poor and gross, and they bombarded me, both emotionally and physically. I was a model student, so I refused to go to the principal’s office about any of this. I was sure one step into that administration office would seal me into some serious trouble once I got home. So I did my best to ignore it. Teachers moved me around the classroom, I avoided eye contact, and my mouth stayed shut. Eventually, however, one of my teachers had had enough. I distinctly remember her pulling me to the side out of class and telling me I needed to stand up for myself, that there wouldn’t always be teachers and guidance counselors to help. She told me I needed to believe in myself and finally react, finally speak. She made sure not to encourage me to be physical—I “should never stoop that low”—but that maybe if I just said something, the girls wouldn’t find me to be such an easy target. I remember crying as I reentered the classroom, terrified and nearly shaking, but I retook my seat and dried it up as best I could. She was the one teacher who refused to move me, who actually purposefully sat me with the girls who harassed me. To this day I’m not sure that was the best method of getting a fourth-grade kid to retaliate, but it worked for me, I guess. I learned to find the strength to be brave against other kids, to not let myself get walked over. To speak up if I saw something bad. To speak at all.
Middle school was a big blur, but I remember clearly how much my self-esteem and self-worth were torn down like Jericho, and my peers were the trumpets. By the time I got to high school I felt weak again; not nearly as bad as my childhood, but it took a great amount of courage to get me to say something to anyone outside of my small group of friends. Then I met a girl, older than me, who constantly encouraged me in whatever I was doing, praised my outfit or my hair, and was always just a beacon of light in my eyes. I idolized her. (I still do a bit, even to this day.) Now I know, of course, she was just a nice person, and that treatment wasn’t just for me. I wasn’t exactly special. But at the time it made me feel special, amazing, like one of my peers actually really liked and respected me. She has no idea how much of an impact she’s had on me, even to this day, but I’ll be forever grateful. She helped me, albeit inadvertently, find the confidence to find myself, grow into myself and embrace the young woman I was becoming. I found the strength to do more than exist in my body, but to express with my body, to experience new things, and to not be so damn worried all the time. I learned to not care if someone didn’t like me, and as I grew more confident, I had more and more friends to make up for those who weren’t on the best terms with me. If you didn’t like me, that was fine. I had enough love around me for three people, so you didn’t make a difference.
These are only two people who helped me along my journey of self-confidence and discovery, but I promise there’s plenty more, both more and less impactful than those I mentioned. All of these people inspire me every day, even now as I’m approaching my twenties, to make the best impact I can, to be as nice as I can, and to lift those around me the best I can. Not every day is a great day, but if I can complement someone, make someone laugh with a stupid joke I stole off the internet, or even just happily share a meal with a friend, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I am who I am, and I found that myself, but I’m thankful for the giant but silent pillars of support below me. The words to properly express just how much those people mean to me will never come into fruition, but as I’m continuing to develop myself and become whoever it is I’m supposed to be, I think back fondly to those who helped me grow. I hope to be one of those people to someone else one day. If I can ever reach that feat, I will consider the span of my life truly meaningful.
That Weird Kid Who Finally Learned To Talk